Champaign, Ill. — Illinois hasn’t won a game in the Big Ten yet this season. Its chances won’t get any easier when No. 5 Wisconsin comes to town today for homecoming.
Wisconsin brings high hopes for a Big Ten title, and perhaps more, and boasts the conference-best rushing attack led by star freshman Jonathan Taylor.
Taylor is averaging 158.9 yards per game, easily the lion’s share of his team’s 256.9 average, and has rushed for over 200 yards in three games. With a 126-yard performance last week, it took only seven games for him to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards, matching the FBS freshman record. He joins NFL Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Marshall Faulk, and 2012 NFL MVP Adrian Peterson, as the only true freshmen to pull off the feat.
“I don’t think he is doing anything now that he didn’t do, or you didn’t see glimpses of in all of camp,” coach Paul Chryst said.
The Badgers (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) have won five out of their games by double digits and by an average of 23.3 points per game behind a fairly stout defense. This doesn’t bode well for the Illini (2-5, 0-4), who have dropped five straight, rank second to last in the Big Ten in total offense and are averaging a conference-worst 18.3 points.
Coach Lovie Smith has experimented with his lineups all season, giving valuable playing time to young players with an eye toward seasons to come. Last week, quarterback Cam Thomas played for the first time all season. He led the team with 79 rushing yards against Minnesota, but only had 33 passing yards and was picked off for a touchdown in a 24-17 loss.
Smith said that Thomas made solid plays through the air and on the ground, but definitely made a few freshman mistakes.
“We thought he did some things, gave us a little boost,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, we’d like to have one (pass) back.”
Thomas shared time at quarterback with Jeff George Jr., who started his third game of the season. George finished with 128 passing yards and one touchdown in his first game this year without an interception.
Smith said he plans to use both Thomas and George against the Badgers, who have won their last 10 games in the Big Ten and their last seven against Illinois. Chryst said he does not want his team to underestimate the Illini.
“You always respect your opponent,” Chryst said.