Slumping Illini, Badgers look for a spark

October, 3, 2012
10/03/12
1:53
PM CT
U.S. Sen. Al Franken might want to cancel his weekend plans.

Don't be surprised if Franken gets a call from Illinois coach Tim Beckman or Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema to come to Madison, Wis. Both Beckman's Illini and Bielema's Badgers could use a pep talk from Stuart Smalley (played by Franken, of course) before their game Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

Hey, it worked for Michael Jordan, and the locker rooms at Camp Randall should have enough mirrors.

Both Illinois and Wisconsin are dealing with adversity five games into the 2012 season. Both teams have units -- Illinois' defense, Wisconsin's offense -- that have seen surprising drops in production. Both are enduring some inevitable growing pains that come with coaching change. Both have faced some key injuries early on. And both are looking for a confidence boost after two very different types of losses last week to open Big Ten play.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireComing off a 35-7 home loss against Penn State, Illinois and coach Tim Beckman will try to regroup at Wisconsin.
"That's what we're dealing with each and every day," said Beckman, the first-year Illini boss. "... There's things that have happened the last two weeks that have really bitten us. We've been our own worst enemy throughout these last two weeks with turnovers and putting our defense's back to the wall, and just not performing the way that we're capable of, pressing a little bit too much."

The situation seems dire in Champaign as Illinois has suffered blowout losses in three of the past four weeks (combined score: 132-45), including back-to-back beat downs at home. Although the points allowed totals jump out for a defense that ranked 15th nationally in scoring in 2011 (19.6 ppg), Illinois' offense and special teams units repeatedly have put the defense in tough situations.

After struggling mightily in the kicking games in 2011, Illinois once again has endured breakdowns, particularly in last Saturday's 35-7 loss to Penn State. Only three FBS teams have committed more turnovers than Illinois (14), and the Illini are tied for 90th nationally in average turnover margin. Not only is Illinois giving away the ball too much, but it's not scoring nearly enough, as the team ranks 97th nationally in scoring (22.7 ppg). Remove a 44-0 win against a woeful Charleston Southern team, and Illinois averages just 18.3 points a game.

"We just haven't had that spark offensively," Beckman said.

Wisconsin appeared to find it -- finally -- in the first 35 minutes last week against Nebraska, as it stormed out to a 27-10 lead. Freshman quarterback Joel Stave showed good poise in his first career road start and connected with star receiver Jared Abbrederis for several long gains. Running back Montee Ball was doing what he does best -- score touchdowns -- and the much-maligned offensive line seemed to be keeping the Huskers at bay. Star linebacker Chris Borland, meanwhile, triggered a strong defensive effort.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireIn Bret Bielema, Arkansas players know they have a coach who isn't lacking confidence.
Then it all fell apart as Nebraska scored the final 20 points to prevail, 30-27. Wisconsin's short-yardage woes resurfaced -- along with confusion on the game's decisive play -- and the defense couldn't slow down Taylor Martinez and the Huskers. Rather than record a potential turning-point win, Wisconsin suffered its second 3-point road loss of the young season.

"Our guys took a plane ride over to Lincoln, and they expected to have success, expected to win the football game," Bielema said. "When we fail to do that, that should hurt. It should make them feel the pain of losing a football game. Not just that night, but I needed to see it on Sunday, and I did."

Wisconsin since has turned the page to Illinois, the Badgers' first Leaders Division game.

"We've moved on," Abbrederis told ESPN.com. "That was last week's game. We took those corrections and got over it. We're ready to play Illinois. It's huge. It's a must-win for us, and that's how we're approaching it this week in practice."

The Badgers already have seen an assistant coach (Mike Markuson) fired and a change at quarterback (Danny O'Brien to Stave). Bielema on Tuesday noted the youth on the roster -- Wisconsin has 50 freshmen (true and redshirt) and only nine seniors -- and acknowledged that the coaching staff transformation (six new assistants were hired during the offseason) has created some challenges.

"Our kids, they aren’t making mistakes on purpose," he said. "The effort has been 100 percent. We've made progress. If we were going the other direction, I'd be worried. But it's been a year of some transition, it's been a year of changes, and the good news is every one of those has moved us forward."

Wisconsin hopes to get well at home, where, despite some struggles earlier this year against Utah State and Northern Iowa, it hasn't lost a game since the 2009 season. The Badgers' 19-game home win streak (second longest nationally behind LSU's 21) includes 10 consecutive victories against Big Ten foes.

Illinois' task is quite a bit tougher. After flopping at home, the Illini need to right the ship at two of the Big Ten's toughest venues (Camp Randall Stadium and Michigan Stadium).

"Whatever the atmosphere's going to be," Beckman said, "we're still going to have to control the things that we can to control, if it's at home, if it's on the road.

"We're going to have to bond together as a football team."

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