Illinois and Wisconsin will each try to shake off a bad start to the season when the two Big Ten rivals meet in a conference game on Saturday afternoon. The Illini opened the season with a Big Ten win over Nebraska, then lost their next four before rebounding with a win last weekend. Wisconsin is off to its worst start since 1990 at 1-3. Read all about the NCAAF odds for this game in my prediction below!
Wisconsin Badgers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini
Saturday, October 09, 2021 – 02:30 PM EDT at Memorial Stadium
Two Big Ten teams off to disappointing starts to the season will meet in a conference matchup that could help one of them get things on track while sending the other into a deeper spiral.
Illinois opened the season with a Big Ten win over Nebraska, then lost its next four. The Illini managed just 14 points against Virginia, 17 against Maryland, and nine against Purdue. They finally broke the skid last week with a 24-14 win over Charlotte and now welcome Wisconsin to town for their homecoming game.
The Badgers, meanwhile, are off to a 1-3 start, their worst since 1990, when they went 1-10. The losses have all come to ranked teams—Penn State, Michigan, and Notre Dame—so the record may be somewhat misleading. Although the Badgers didn’t score more than 17 in any of those games and have lost by a total of 49 points in the last two weeks.
As if things weren’t rough enough for Wisconsin, there are questions about the health of starting quarterback Graham Mertz. He was taken to the hospital during last week’s game after suffering a chest injury when he was sacked in the third quarter. He was released the same day, and coach Paul Chryst said that the test results were encouraging.
It seems likely that he will answer the bell for Saturday’s game, although he’s listed as questionable on the early-week injury report.
"I was out there today," Mertz said after Monday’s practice. "I'll just go with it day-by-day."
Starting tight end Jake Ferguson also suffered a chest injury that knocked him out of the Michigan game, although he remained on the sidelines. Ferguson is also listed as questionable for this week’s game.
Illinois head coach Bret Bielema is in for an emotional week as he faces his former team for the first time. Bielema coached Wisconsin for seven years, taking the Badgers to three straight Rose Bowls. Current Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst was his offensive coordinator.
In true coach-speak fashion, Bielema downplayed the personal nature of this game.
“I know I’m going to get the question but this game is about the University of Illinois football against the University of Wisconsin football and that’s what it’s about,” he said. “My preparation for any game is the exact same. I get the question, I get understanding but really the attitude (each week) has been the exact same. I’m not going to do anything more or less. I’m just not wired that way.”
Illinois will look to lean on its run game to control the contest. Josh McCray ran for 156 yards against Purdue, and Chase Brown had 257 last week, giving the Illini a two-headed ground attack.
Illinois is also getting healthy on defense. Defensive lineman Keith Randolph returned to the starting lineup last week, and Bielema is hopeful that linebacker Jake Hansen and defensive back Devon Witherspoon will be back. Both missed the Charlotte game but are “a lot closer this week.”
Two other linebackers—Seth Coleman and Isaiah Gay—left the Charlotte game with injuries, but both got optimistic reports. Bielema said Coleman was “a probable” for Saturday. Gay was cleared to return to last week’s game, but the team had a long drive on offense that took up most of the remaining clock and didn’t need to put him back on the field.
Now let's get into our NCAAF pick.
It’s tough to get a read on just how good Wisconsin is, since their schedule has been so lopsided. Clearly, the Badgers haven’t been able to hang with top 15 teams, but Illinois is far from that.
Choose your BMR's best sportsbook and look for Wisconsin to start the long path toward getting well by spoiling homecoming for the Illini.
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