CHAMPAIGN — With a five-game losing streak already in the books, Illinois is trying to find a way to win another football game this season.
With a seven-game winning streak already in the books, unbeaten and No. 5-ranked Wisconsin is trying not lose another football game this season.
Two teams traversing very different paths meet Saturday in Illinois’ 11 a.m. homecoming game at Memorial Stadium.
While Illinois (2-5, 0-4 Big Ten) has turned to youth hoping to eventually buck a nasty losing tradition, Wisconsin (7-0, 4-0) is changing nothing while hoping to continue its impressive winning tradition.
Other schools seem to go about it in a sexier, attention-grabbing way. But since the start of the 2014 season, only Alabama (48-4, .923), Ohio State (42-5, .894) and Clemson (43-6, .878) are ahead of Wisconsin (38-9, .809) in terms of victories and winning percentage.
Wisconsin has settled into a winning formula it tries to duplicate each season. It rolls out a massive offensive line, an elite running back and just enough passing to give a sense of balance. Add in a solid defense and the Badgers have gone to bowl games in 22 of the last 24 seasons, including six Rose Bowls.
Wisconsin didn’t always enjoy this success. The Badgers had a combined record of 9-36 in the four seasons leading up to the 1990 season, when a Nebraska graduate and former Notre Dame defensive coordinator named Barry Alvarez took over.
Even Alvarez struggled at first. It wasn’t until his fourth season that he had a plus-.500 football team but that year, in 1993, the Badgers took off, going 10-1-1 and landing in the Rose Bowl.
Alvarez, now the school’s athletic director, built the formula that the Badgers use to this day.
The current Illini staff doesn’t need to be reminded what that formula is capable of. Last season in Madison, Wis., the Badgers rushed for 363 yards and steamrolled the Illini, 48-3.
Last season it was Corey Clement doing the bulk of the running. This season it’s one of the premier true freshmen in the country, Jonathan Taylor.
Taylor leads the Big Ten in rushing and is No. 3 nationally, averaging 158.9 yards per game.
“Wisconsin is balanced, but they’ve shown they want to run the football first,” Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. “For us it’s going to be how we play on first and second down against the run.
“I’m sure they have watched our last two football games and say, ‘Hey, we’ll want to get established’ and it will be up to us to go out there and get it stopped.”
Stopping the run has been a major problem Illinois has not been able to solve.
Two weeks ago against Rutgers, Illinois gave up 274 yards on the ground. Last week at Minnesota, the defense surrendered 292. No wonder Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in rushing defense. That’s a problem going against a Wisconsin team that ranks No. 1 in rushing offense.
Nickerson said he knows what must be fixed. But actually fixing it isn’t so easy.
“We have to clean up our run fits,” he said. “We have to be disciplined over and over and over again until our opponents just can’t take it anymore. If we get to where we’re supposed to be, we’ll knock out the run game. We’re working at it hard, but we’ve missed far too many tackles the last few weeks.”
Illinois is expected to continue with the quarterback rotation it unveiled last week. Jeff George Jr. and true freshman Cam Thomas shuttled in and out with George the more accomplished passer and Thomas the greater running threat.
“Cam’s role will continue to grow,” offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. “We want him to develop.”
Saturday is Illinois’ 107th homecoming celebration. The Badgers have won 11 of the last 12 meetings between the two schools.