Yesterday we began looking ahead to Wisconsin football’s opponents for the 2014 season. We began the opposition research with a look at the opener against LSU, but today we get to the Big Ten portion of the schedule with a look at the Fighting Illini of Illinois.
Last season Wisconsin went down to Champaign and put a whooping on the Illini before letting off the gas in the second-half. It led to a 56-32 victory and Wisconsin improving to 5-2 on the season. This year the two will tussle on Oct. 11, and it won’t be a primetime BTN game like it was a year ago either.
Can this season be more of the same for the Badgers, or will it be a struggle like it was the two years before last? Let’s find out where the Illini stand following spring ball.
If there’s one thing that the Illini will do well this season it will be running the football. Strange to think considering last year the team finished No. 2 in passing offense and No. 10 in rushing offense in the Big Ten. Yet, it’s exactly the truth thanks to an offensive line that is much improved over the last few versions of itself.
Besides, there is a three-way battle going on at quarterback…and we all know that a new quarterback’s best friend is a solid run game.
Josh Ferguson, who ran for 779 yards last season, returns and will have a bigger role in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s offense this time around. He did run for seven touchdowns and averaged 5.5 yards per carry in 2013, but he’s got to stay healthy. If he does that, he’s one of the most versatile and dangerous running backs in the Big Ten.
Backing him up is junior Donovonn Young, who is a very experienced option as well. He rushed for 376 yards on just 93 carries last year, and could be a bigger part of the run game with a less mobile quarterback likely behind center this year.
The offensive line in front of them is also one that is very experienced, with three starters returning and all three will be upperclassmen this fall. Left tackle Simon Cvijanovic is an underrated prospect who didn’t get enough reward for his play last season, but also returning are guards Alex Hill and Ted Karras.
The Illini may need some time to work out their passing game, and the run game could be the strength of the 2014 team early on in the season.
Illinois has struggled nightly on defense in the two previous years and head coach Tim Beckman has stuck it out with his defensive coordinator, . It’s time for him and the young defensive core to step up or ship out in Champaign.
Losing star linebacker Jonathan Brown doesn’t help, but at least there’s a proven leader in junior linebacker Mason Monheim to build around. He’ll be leading a defense with nine upperclassmen that ended last season as starters.
It appeared the group is making small strides this spring, but there needs to be a much bigger jump by them in the fall, otherwise Beckman and Co. aren’t going to survive another year.
Biggest Question Mark:
The quarterback position is truly up in the air after a very competitive spring. Most expected it to be a battle between transfer Wes Lunt and sophomore Aaron Bailey, but senior Reilly O’Toole made a huge push late in spring ball.
O’Toole actually made the biggest impression during the spring game, with 156 all-purpose yards and two passing touchdowns. That may have been the highlight of his spring though, and expecting him to be in the mix throughout the fall may be a bit much.
Between the other two, Lunt appears to have the biggest arm and some mobility to him. The sophomore needs just a bit more time in the offense, and he needs to perform better when all eyes are on him. Taking just the spring game in to consideration, Lunt struggled a lot and didn’t look like the sure-fire starter everyone expected him to be.
This battle will likely go deep in to camp, but someone needs to be a reliable passer for Cubit’s offense to really be effective going forward. Illini fans have to be a bit concerned that no one has jumped ahead of anyone else.
What it all means:
Different year, same story for the Fighting Illini as of late. This team has some nice parts, but it’s lacking some serious talent at just about every position but offensive line and running back. Look for the Badgers to have a significant advantage in this matchup. That is unless the Illini find a miracle on the defensive side of the ball between now and fall camp.
If so, we’ll keep you updated.