5 reasons Wisconsin will beat Illinois in Friday's B1G opener
Wisconsin will be looking to avenge a brutal upset loss from last season when it opens the belated B1G season against Illinois on Friday night at Camp Randall Stadium. Illinois stunned the Badgers last season, and it’d be even more stunning if it were to happen again.
Wisconsin is coming in as a heavy favorite again. Here are 5 reasons the Badgers will start their season 1-0 for the 5th year in a row.
Wisconsin wins openers
The Badgers have started their season 1-0 every year since they lost to Alabama to open the 2015 season. In order, Wisconsin beat LSU 16-14 at Lambeau Field, Utah State 59-10 at home, Western Kentucky 34-3 at home and USF 49-0 on the road to begin last season.
Yes, that might not be the greatest list of teams, including LSU, which fired Les Miles weeks later in 2016. Wisconsin’s season almost always opens with a non-conference game, so with an 8-game, conference-only schedule, the B1G openers might be more relevant.
Well just like its season openers, Wisconsin has won its last four B1G openers, all by significant margins. In order, the Badgers beat Michigan State 30-6 on the road, Northwestern 33-24 at home, Iowa 28-17 on the road and Michigan at home 35-14 last season.
Last year’s debacle
Motivation should not be a factor heading into this game. Last year, Wisconsin lost to Illinois 24-23 on a final-play field goal in Champaign. Wisconsin came in at 6-0 and was favored by nearly 5 touchdowns as it was likely looking ahead to the following week’s matchup with Ohio State.
Plenty had to happen for Illinois to win that game. In Wisconsin’s 3 4th-quarter drives, the Badgers kicked a field goal from the 2-yard line, Jonathan Taylor fumbled and Jack Coan threw an interception that led to the game-winning 39-yard field goal from Illinois kicker James McCourt.
The Badgers never trailed until there were zeros on the game clock. Previously, Wisconsin had won 9 straight in the series, all by double-digits.
Illinois doesn’t know Graham Mertz
With Graham Mertz seeing his first meaningful playing time as a college quarterback, Illinois has to scheme for a QB it likely doesn’t know a lot about. This is one of the most unique parts of the 2020 season. Not only do teams not get a glimpse of what the opponents’ top players look like in the non-conference, even team’s beat reporters aren’t able to check out preseason practice.
Nobody really knows what Mertz will look like on Friday night because he only appeared in 2 games in 2019 and completed 9 of 10 passes for 73 yards in wins over Central Michigan and Kent State. However, he worked as the No. 1 quarterback for several practices during the middle of last season and part fall camp, both times due to Coan injuries.
Illinois will struggle to score
If you like three-and-outs, you will be seeing plenty of them when Illinois puts its offense on the field against a Wisconsin defense that should rank among the best in the country. The Badgers are loaded on that side of the ball, returning 18 of their top 20 tacklers from last year.
Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters completed just 9 of his 21 passes against Wisconsin in 2019, and the Fighting Illini rushed for just 4 yards per carry. Illinois benefited from a few big plays against Wisconsin, and it would be surprising to see the Fighting Illini duplicate that considering they ranked No. 115 in college football in yards per game last season.
Time of possession will heavily favor Wisconsin
The Badgers dominated the time of possession battle last year against Illinois, holding the ball for 40:49. In addition, Illinois was third worst in college football in 2019 in time of possession. Wisconsin is entering the post-Jonathan Taylor era after his 3 incredible seasons in Madison, but this is Wisconsin, and Wisconsin is going to find the next great running back sooner or later.
With the loss of Quintez Cephus to the NFL, the Badgers do not have a clear go-to wide receiver heading into this season, so running the ball will be even more important, especially early in the year as Mertz gets into a rhythm as a starting quarterback. Nakia Watson appears to be the next guy in line at running back, though we will likely see plenty of Garrett Groshek as well.
Wisconsin will run the ball a ton on Friday night. Watson is expected to be a solid running back in his first season as the main guy, and he will receive plenty of help from a great offensive line. And Illinois will struggle to stop it.