51F Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
After back-to-back heartbreaking losses, Wisconsin has regrouped to remain in the hunt for the Big Ten Leaders Division title.
Illinois' struggles on the field might be the least of its problems.
The No. 15 Badgers look to continue their roll with a third straight victory while trying to hand the reeling Illini a fifth consecutive loss Saturday afternoon in Champaign.
Wisconsin (8-2, 4-2) has outscored Purdue and Minnesota 104-30 to win its last two games and move past the bitter memories of consecutive last-second losses at Michigan State and Ohio State.
Though the Badgers' resurgence has come against two of the conference's weaker teams, the run has left them one game behind division leader and 21st-ranked Penn State. Victories at Illinois (6-4, 2-4) and next weekend over the Nittany Lions would give Wisconsin the division title and secure a spot in the Big Ten's inaugural championship game.
"We had two weeks back to back that were about as gut-wrenching as anybody could imagine," coach Bret Bielema said. "I'm under the philosophy: Whatever happens, you have to embrace it. It has to make you stronger. I know we're a stronger team today than we were four weeks ago."
Quarterback Russell Wilson is still the same gamebreaker he has been all season. The senior transfer from North Carolina State completed his first 16 passes before his final throw of last Saturday's 42-13 win at Minnesota fell to the ground for his only incompletion. He threw for a season-high four touchdowns, giving him a school record 25 this season.
Wilson has thrown nine of those TDs without an interception over the last three games.
"I'm not surprised. It's just something you come to expect from Russell," Wisconsin tight end Jacob Pedersen said. "He does it game in and game out, and hopefully he does it the rest of the year."
When Wilson is not throwing or running the ball, he's handing it off to Montee Ball, who scored three TDs at Minnesota to break the Big Ten single-season TD record with 27.
Ball rushed 23 times for 166 yards after picking up a career-high 223 on 20 carries in a 62-17 win over Purdue on Nov. 5.
Stopping Wilson, Ball and the others who make up a Wisconsin offense that ranks seventh in the nation averaging 499.0 yards per contest will be a major chore for Illinois.
After giving up a season-high 223 rushing yards in a 31-14 home loss to No. 20 Michigan last Saturday, the Illini will try to bounce back without starting linebacker Trulon Henry. An honorable mention all-Big Ten safety in 2010, the 27-year-old Henry was lost for the season after he was shot in the hand while trying to break up a fight involving some teammates at a house party last weekend.
Henry's injury is the latest setback for the Illini, who have dropped four straight after starting 6-0.
That slide has left coach Ron Zook's future with the program seem uncertain. Frustrated by growing talk about his future at Illinois, Zook abruptly left his Tuesday press conference after a reporter asked a question regarding that topic several minutes after the coach said he would not address the issue.
While the Illini defense is in for a challenge, it's offense must find a way to regroup after averaging just 10.5 points during the four-game skid. They averaged 34.7 while winning their first six games.
"When you've got problems, that's when you find out what kind of people you are and what kind of person you are and you've just got to keep on keeping on and work through it," Zook said.
Versatile quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase needs to improve after throwing two touchdowns and three interceptions while being sacked 12 times over the last four games. The sophomore has averaged just 2.8 yards per carry the last four contests after gaining 3.7 per rush during the first six.
Wisconsin has won five of six over Illinois, including 27-17 in the last meeting Oct. 25, 2008. The Illini won 31-26 in the teams' most recent contest in Champaign in 2007.