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Wisconsin football: Three questions for Week 5 vs. Illinois

A look at three key questions for the Wisconsin Badgers heading into Saturday's Big Ten West matchup with Illinois.
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The Wisconsin Badgers (2-2 overall, 0-1 B1G) are desperately in need of a bounce-back effort this week after being blown out by Ohio State last Saturday. While the hardest game of the schedule is now behind them, Big Ten West play begins with Illinois coming to Camp Randall Stadium this weekend. 

Wisconsin is an early touchdown favorite against the Fighting Illini (3-1 overall, 0-1 B1G), but it will surely be a tough matchup considering what is on the line for both teams and the physical style of play each squad wants to play.

With that in mind, here is a look at three questions for the Badgers heading into the Big Ten West battle against Illinois.

Wisconsin safety Kamo'i Latu flips Ohio State tight end Cade Stover to force an incompletion.

Wisconsin safety Kamo'i Latu upending Ohio State tight end Cade Stover on a tackle. 

Can Wisconsin wrap up and tackle better against Illinois?

One of the most glaring shortcomings of Wisconsin's early start is the tackling of the defense, specifically in the two losses to Washington State and Ohio State. 

The Wisconsin defense was one of the best in the country the past few seasons, but with several new starters due to graduation and injuries, the defense has struggled at times with open-field tackling. 

As a result, Ohio State had two running backs rush for over 100 yards against them last Saturday, a stark difference from Jim Leonhard's average of just 103 yards allowed on the ground per game throughout his coordinating career. 

So the question is, can the Badgers clean up their tackling woes with a talented Illinois rushing attack coming to town? The Fighting Illini want to establish the run and have one of the best running backs in the Big Ten in Chase Brown. Wisconsin will need to do a much better job of tackling this Saturday if they want to slow down what is currently the No. 25 rushing team in the country in Illinois. 

Of the players to watch, inside linebackers, Jordan Turner and Maema Njongmeta will be particularly important after a poor showing against Ohio State. 

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz throwing the football against Ohio State.

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz throwing the ball downfield against Ohio State. 

Can the passing game find its rhythm again?

Through the first three weeks of the season, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz and the passing offense displayed measurable growth from the year prior. 

However, against Ohio State, Mertz only threw for 94 yards, the second-lowest total of his college career as a starter, and he threw a costly interception on his first throw of the game that set the Buckeyes up for an easy seven points. 

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The assumption is that Illinois will stack the box against Wisconsin to stop the run, meaning Mertz will need to help move the chains this Saturday. Will the passing game look like it did the first three weeks, or are there lingering issues from the loss in Columbus?

Wide receiver Skyler Bell had a pair of drops that hurt the offense, while Dike was nearly non-existent beyond the early miscommunication with Mertz that led to the interception. 

Graham Mertz has thrown a touchdown to five different targets so far this season, and he has done a nice job of incorporating all of his weapons into the offense early on. That will need to continue against Illinois as the Badgers look to maintain a balanced offensive attack. 

Wisconsin linebacker Nick Herbig pumps up the crowd after a sack.

Wisconsin captain Nick Herbig pumping up the crowd after a big play for the Badgers. 

Can the Badgers come out with energy and get a fast start?

Outside of the New Mexico State game, the Wisconsin Badgers have struggled in the first quarter this season, specifically on offense. 

Against Illinois State, the Badgers only scored seven points and needed a John Torchio 100-yard interception return to put points on the board. Versus Washington State, the Badgers were held scoreless in the first quarter and looked lifeless for much of the early moments of the game. Then there is the Ohio State game, where Wisconsin was outscored 21-0 and surrendered 210 yards of offense while only recording one first down on offense. 

The Badgers need to be able to start faster and play with energy early in the game this Saturday in a must-win contest against Illinois. A slow start at home allows the opponent to become far too comfortable, similar to the Washington State game. 

On paper, Wisconsin is arguably the more talented team. However, allowing Illinois to dictate the game early could prove disastrous. With the way that the Fighting Illini maintain possession of the football on offense (No. 6 in FBS), their offense can suck the life out of a team rather easily. If Wisconsin wants to win this Saturday, a good start is essential and would be a breath of fresh air after the performance last weekend. 

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