No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers vs. Fighting Illini Game Preview

After a lot of back and forth, the Big Ten finally begins play in the 2020 college football season as the 14th ranked Wisconsin Badgers welcome the Fighting Illini to town tonight at 7 pm CST on the Big Ten Network. This will be the first of a nine-game, conference only schedule. After an initial postponement of the league back on Aug. 11th, the Big Ten changed course and announced the schedule on Sept. 16th.

The Badgers saw a nine-game win streak snapped last year against the Illini as they kicked a last-second field goal to upset the Badgers 24-23. The Badgers lead the all-time series 42-37-7. This is the Badgers sixth season under head coach Paul Chryst who has a 52-16 record (34-10 at Wisconsin).

The Badgers return eight starters on a defense that finished last year 4th nationally in total defense (287.1 ypg) and 10th in scoring defense (16.9), including four shutouts. All three defensive linemen return for the Badgers, defensive end seniors Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand, sophomore nose tackle Keeanu Benton, junior cornerback Falcon Hicks, senior cornerback Caesar Williams and senior free safety Eric Burnell.

On offense, the Badgers will have a new signal-caller. 14-game starter Jack Coan is out indefinitely with a foot injury that he suffered during training camp. So, redshirt freshman Graham Mertz will get the start. Mertz will be the first freshman to start for Wisconsin at QB in 42 years. Mertz did play in two games last year, going 4 for 5 for 35 yards vs. Central Michigan and 5 for 5 for 38 yards vs. Kent State.

The Badgers also have to replace three-year starter Jonathan Taylor at running back. Taylor went to the NFL and is the starter for the Indianapolis Colts. This is the first time in four years that the Badgers open the season without a running back that has a 100-yard game in his career. Senior Garrett Groshek will look to take on a more significant role this year. He was the second-leading rusher and receiver last year. He carried 42 times for 194 yards. Sophomore Nakla Watson is the leading returning rusher with 74 carries for 337 yards and two touchdowns.

For the Fighting Illini, this year they have 25 seniors on the roster. During the last couple of years, the Illini were one of the youngest teams in the nation. The offensive line returns four starters. Michigan transfer Brandon Peters remains the starter at QB this year. Last year he went 152 for 275 for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns. Peters is on the 2020 Maxwell Award watch list.

The Illini likes to rotate their running backs. After the graduation of some key players like Dre Brown, the Illini will look to senior Mike Epstein, redshirt sophomore Chase Brown, and sophomore Jakari Norwood to get the ground game going.

On defense, the Illini hope to continue the success of last year playing “LovieBall.” They forced 28 turnovers, ranking fourth in the nation. They forced a turnover in every game they played last year, which was the third-longest streak until it was snapped in the Redbox Bowl.

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