Coming into a game against Illinois, the Wisconsin defense had yet to give up 100 rushing yards in any of its first six games.
That streak didn’t make it to seven.
Although the Illini’s final rushing total of 141 yards Saturday might not be eye-popping, it’s the reason the Badgers are entering Ohio Stadium at 6-1 instead of 7-0.Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter
Of those yards, 123 came in the second half, when Illinois came back from a 20-7 deficit to stun the Badgers on a 39-yard field goal from James McCourt as time expired. Although Wisconsin is still first in the nation in rushing defense (58.4 yards per game) and total defense (193.9), it was susceptible to big plays against Illinois.
The Badgers will try to regroup Saturday at Ohio State, whose offense is predicated on blowing games open with long plays. The Buckeyes are gaining 526.7 yards per game, fifth in the nation.
“They have weapons everywhere, and they spread you out,” Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr said. “There’s a big misconception that people think that they’re always just trying to run out on the edge, but that’s really not the case. They still want to play big-boy football. You have to defend the whole field.”
Against Illinois, the Badgers allowed a 48-yard touchdown pass and three runs of 20 or more yards, with the biggest coming in the third quarter as Illini running back Reggie Corbin broke free for a 43-yard touchdown to cut the Badgers' lead to 20-14.
“(Illinois’) running backs were running really hard, and it was just a matter of one guy missing an assignment,” Badgers linebacker Zack Baun said. “I feel like the game really came down to three plays, and on those plays it was one guy missing. That’s easy stuff to clean up during the week.”
Orr leads the Badgers with eight sacks, and Baun has 30 tackles to go along with a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown against Michigan. In addition to their strong linebacking duo, the Badgers also boast two of the best safeties in the Big Ten in Eric Burrell and Reggie Pearson.
“They’re both really big for this defense, especially their capabilities in the run,” Baun said. “They can also cover. They’re a good mix of both.”
One of the keys for the Badgers will be stopping Ohio State on third down. The Buckeyes lead the nation with a 56% third-down conversion rate.
“We need to get them out of their rhythm and make them feel uncomfortable so they have to do stuff they don’t want to do,” Baun said. “It comes down to winning our one-on-one matchups, whether that’s coming off the edge or in space and coverage.”
A week after being a 30-point favorite against Illinois, Wisconsin comes in as a 14-point underdog, a role Orr believes the Badgers thrive in.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve always been the underdog; it wasn’t until a couple weeks ago that people predicted us to win,” he said. “We go into every game knowing we’re going to have to fight.”