JEFF SCHORFHEIDE/Herald photoWhen the Big Ten schedule first came out, many cited the upcoming weekend as a “trap” game of sorts for the University of Wisconsin football team. Playing at Illinois, a Big Ten bottom feeder in recent years, the week before a road game against a Penn State team predicted to be among the league’s elite seemed like a potentially dangerous proposition for Wisconsin. Recent weeks have done nothing to change that. However, as the first leg of the two-game trip approaches, it is the Illini who are undefeated in Big Ten play and receiving more votes in national polls than the Nittany Lions, who are still looking for their first conference win. “They’re a very skilled team, don’t make many mistakes, and go out there and execute,” cornerback Allen Langford said. Illinois’ surprising start has a lot to do with its offense, which entered the week atop the Big Ten by a wide margin at running the football.”Up to right now, it is the best [offense] we’ve seen,” defensive lineman Mike Newkirk said. “They do execute; they’ve been playing some great ball. “It’s a big game for us. It’s a test.”Illinois has gained more than 255 yards per game on the ground thus far, nearly 40 yards more than Michigan State, the second-place team. What makes the Illini so difficult to defend is that the burden of carrying the ball is spread out across several different players.Running back Rashard Mendenhall sees the bulk of the work, but he is aided by quarterbacks Juice Williams and Eddie McGee and running back Troy Pollard — all of whom average more than 25 yards per game on the ground. “They’ve got good running backs, great speed, shifty,” Newkirk said. “I think the biggest thing right now is … they’re believing in themselves.”Illinois distributes the ball around effectively operating out of the spread, a type of offense Wisconsin has struggled to defend this season in games against UNLV and The Citadel. “In the past we haven’t done well against that type of offense,” Langford said. “Now it’s time for us to go ahead and try to be good against that type of offense.”Possibly because of past struggles facing spread offensive attacks, the fifth-ranked Badgers are a surprising 2.5-point underdog against the unranked Illini, a fact that doesn’t carry much weight in the UW locker room.”It has been made reference, maybe kind of as a motivational thing or maybe just as an eye-opener, a more realistic look to what people think we are,” Newkirk said. “We try not to pay attention to things like that too much. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but for us all that matters is our own opinion, and we believe.”With two games against spread offenses in the books already, Newkirk thinks the Badgers will be better prepared for what Illinois has to offer.”Maybe seeing a couple other teams earlier on in the year will give us a little bit of a look as far as [what to expect],” Newkirk said.The seemingly weekly task of answering questions about their success — or lack thereof — against the spread offense, has started to wear for some on the defense. “It is a little bit frustrating, every time. … We haven’t had the greatest performances against spread offenses to date, and every time a new one comes into town, then we’re always the question,” Newkirk said.”Hopefully we’re able to make the corrections we needed to make and that won’t be an issue anymore.”Corrections were the big story the last time Wisconsin faced Illinois. Much like the slow starts the Wisconsin defense has been plagued with this season, the Badgers fell behind big in the opening half thanks to the elusive Williams, and took a 24-10 deficit into the locker room at halftime. The defense made adjustments during the intermission and was able to hold the Illini scoreless in the second half to pull out a hard-fought 30-24 victory. “(Last year) we had a lot of fight, came back and won that game against a really good team,” Langford said. “This year it’s got to be a lot different. We gotta go out there and start fast and do our job from the start.”While the Badgers will, for the most part, know what to expect from the Illini running game, the same cannot be said for Illinois of Wisconsin’s. The running back position is a little murky backing up P.J. Hill. With Lance Smith ineligible to play due to suspension, the Badgers have many potential runners to spell Hill. The two main candidates are true freshmen: Zach Brown and Quincy Landingham. Brown has seen limited action thus far and Landingham none — he was a fall camp convert from safety — but Bielema is confident in both. A decision on who will be the main backup will be made Friday morning.”[Friday] we’ll discuss. … Actually it’s probably gonna be a good discussion because they both have practiced very, very well,” Bielema said.
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