As one-dimensional as Bill Cubit’s team has been through six games this season, the Illinois ground attack will be even more decimated this Saturday.
With Josh Ferguson sidelined after a shoulder injury sustained in the Nebraska game, the pressure for Wes Lunt and the Illini passing attack to perform well against a sound Wisconsin defense has been magnified immensely. Without its top running back, Illinois’ passing game must be the most efficient it’s been to date to snap a five game skid against the Badgers.
So far, Lunt has been as efficient as expected. His 1,424 yards and nine touchdowns this year rank fifth in the conference and he is tied for the lowest interception total with Christian Hackenberg and Connor Cook, all having two prior to Saturday’s contests.
Though the Lunt’s success and the aerial attack has manufactured a 4-2 start for the Illini, the contributions of Ferguson and Ke’Shawn Vaughn on the ground have forced most defenses to account for the running game.
Against one of the conference’s better defenses run defenses, Illinois likely won’t have much success running the football without its most versatile back.
Illinois hasn’t had much of an operational ground attack anyway this season, ranking 13th in the Big Ten with a 137.5 yards per game average. And against a Wisconsin defense that has held four of its seven opponents under the 100-yard mark this year, it was unlikely the Illini would experience much success carrying the football.
But the absence of Ferguson does hinder Cubit’s ability to run the ball effectively in situations that Illinois needs to run the football. It forces the Illini into predictable situations that the Badgers will find advantageous.
On the October 10th loss to Iowa at Kinnick Stadium, the Illini mustered just 46 yards on the ground with an average of 1.92 yards per carry. Vaughn did gain 67 yards on 19 carries, but frequent hits in the backfield to Lunt dropped the number.
Even without Lunt’s -20 yards for the afternoon, the running game was virtually irrelevant.
That’s why Lunt has to be precise in his passes, consistent in his delivery and protective of the football on Saturday. For a majority of the season, he’s done that.
Without his 317 yards and zero interception performance against the Hawkeyes, Illinois wouldn’t have been in the ball game.
Had it not been for his late game heroics against Nebraska, Cubit might still be searching for his first conference win. There’s no question, without Lunt, this team wouldn’t be in such a positive situation midway through the year.
Beating Wisconsin, however, without the luxury of your top backfield weapon, requires more than a solid outing. To pull of the win and beat the Badgers for the first time since the 2007 Rose Bowl season, Lunt needs a spectacular performance.
Lunt has a great weapon in Geronimo Allison, who’s the conference’s second-best receiver this season with 601 yards and three touchdown catches. He’ll be without his second-favorite target, Marchie Murdock, as well, but Malik Turner and Desmond Cain should be able to make up for that loss.
As Wisconsin continues to struggle and Illinois gains momentum, this may be the best opportunity the Illini have had to take down their West Division foe in several years. A win on Saturday would catapult Illinois into a great position for the Big Ten West race.
That feat won’t be accomplished without Lunt picking up for his injured teammate.
Vaughn has showcased some talent in spurts this season but he likely won’t be able to break through the teeth of that tough Badger front line. The ground will be more of an enemy than an ally to the Illini this weekend.
It’s up to Lunt and his receivers to keep the offense rolling and give the Illini a chance to beat Wisconsin and move to 2-1 in the conference.