No. 23 Wisconsin returns home to take on Illinois

Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook faces Illinois this week after a frustrating game at Michigan last Saturday night.Photo Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

— By Tamira Madsen, The Sports Xchange —

MADISON, Wis. — Illinois treks to Camp Randall Stadium for its second true road game of the season on Saturday and No. 23 Wisconsin is aiming to get back on track after one of the most humbling setbacks in the tenure of coach Paul Chryst.

Wisconsin, with its banged up defense, stumbled out of Ann Arbor, Mich., with a 38-13 loss to then-No. 13 Michigan last Saturday.

The Badgers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) were without sophomore defensive end Isaiah Loudermilk and senior safety D’Cota Dixon. Loudermilk will miss a second straight game with a left ankle injury suffered against Nebraska.

Dixon, a starter with a right foot injury, was listed as questionable on Monday’s injury report, along with a bevy of players on defense, including freshman safety Scott Nelson (right leg), who didn’t play in the first half against Michigan and was ejected in the third quarter for a targeting penalty.

The Wisconsin offense stumbled woefully at Michigan as sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook completed 7 of 10 passes for 100 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown.

Wisconsin sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor remains a bright spot on offense. Taylor, the nation’s second leading rusher, averages 158.3 yards per game. He has rushed for 100-plus yards in six games this season, and averaged 184 yards per game at Camp Randall.

Wisconsin has compiled a 15-2 record in road games during four seasons with Chryst as its head coach. The Wolverines handed the Badgers both losses.

The Illini (3-3, 1-2), with new offensive coordinator Rod Smith, are implementing an up-tempo style with a zone read option out of the shotgun with two wide receivers on each side or three wideouts and a tight end.

The Badgers beat the Fighting Illini 24-10 last season in Champaign, and have won six straight at Camp Randall in the series between the teams.

Chryst said he’s aware of some changes and his staff will take a close look at the Illini’s schemes and personnel.

He expects a hard-fought game.

“We played against a number of these guys last year and know what they did to us and how we had to fight for the yards,” Chryst said. “That’s why we have a ton of respect for them. Our players know it. (Illinois) is a talented football team and I’ve got a ton of respect for (Illini coach) Lovie (Smith, and I know we’re going to be in for a fistfight.”

Illinois’ defense has fought to intimidate opposing quarterbacks in a handful of games in 2018, including its 46-7 home loss against Purdue. The Boilermakers collected 611 total yards on offense, the third team to post 591 yards or more against the Illini.

Smith couldn’t put his finger on one thing in particular in the effort in which he said “we haven’t played this bad in a game.”

He was disappointed in the performance against Purdue, considering there were so many positives in Illinois’ 38-17 win at Rutgers on Oct. 6.

“When you don’t have a lot of answers for what happens, you go back to work, which we’ll do,” Smith said Monday. “We started that process. Of course, this morning we went to the video. Now for our football team, whether you win or you lose, you have to move on. You can’t let a bad game beat you the next week and that’s not what we’re going to do.”

Illinois is bolstered on offense by senior quarterback Al Bush Jr., a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech who is a dual threat.

Bush missed 2 1/2 games with a left leg injury but returned three weeks ago. In two Big Ten games — against Rutgers and Purdue — Bush completed 22 of 33 passes for 259 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

In addition, Bush has rushed for 140 yards and three scores, including 116 yards and two touchdowns at Rutgers.

Illinois has several impact players on defense. Sophomore linebacker Jake Hansen leads the team with six tackles for loss. Freshman cornerback Jartavius Martin has three interceptions in his first five career games for Illinois.