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Illini defense must prevent Wisconsin from running wild

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Wisconsin can run. Illinois can’t hide.

Based on the numbers, it would be hard to find a bigger mismatch anywhere in America this week than the Badgers’ rushing attack against the Illini’s run defense.

Wisconsin’s offense ranks fifth in the nation and first in the Big Ten with 298.2 yards per game on the ground. The 25th-ranked Badgers (4-2, 2-1) are tops in college football with a hard-to-believe 7.1 yards per carry.

Melvin Gordon (9.7 yards per carry) is a budding superstar. James White (6.5) can hit the home run, too.

The Illini (3-2, 0-1) are 11th in the conference and 97th nationally in rushing defense (195.4). The nation’s leading rusher, Washington’s Bishop Sankey, torched them for a career-high 208 yards. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah hit them with a career-high 225.

We might as well ask it now: Does anyone know the license plate number of the truck that’ll be rolling through Champaign on Saturday?

“It’s very important for us to come out and play [to our] capabilities and be there in the fourth quarter to win the football game,” Illini coach Tim Beckman said.

It’s fair to question whether or not this defense, on its best day, could prevent a team like Wisconsin from running wild. The talent might not be there, but at least the motivation seems to be.

“We’ve been working on stopping the run [since the Nebraska game on Oct. 5], and we’re going to do that this time,” said defensive lineman Houston Bates. “We’ve got to redeem ourselves. It’s a redemption game.”

Wisconsin doesn’t just run the ball well out of power formations. It’s as effective in play action as any team Illinois will face all season. Downfield strikes from Joel Stave to Jared Abbrederis have become part of the norm for the Badgers offense, which cranks out more total yards (519.5 per game) than any unit in the conference.

Abbrederis might not play Saturday after suffering a head injury last week against Northwestern. If he’s on the sideline, it’ll simply mean more Gordon and White.

“They’ve got to strap on the pads just like we do,” said safety Earnest Thomas III. “Everybody is going to be counting us out. We don’t care.”

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SLGreenberg



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