Style points aren’t in fashion at Wisconsin.
The seventh-ranked Badgers will push opponents around with withering defense , and try to grind it out on the ground on offense. They’re not necessarily going to stray from that successful formula just to make an impression on the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Coach Paul Chryst is just fine with how his team looks, so long as it can close out the regular season with three straight wins, starting against Illinois on Saturday.
“I don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure that out,” Chryst said about blowout wins for other playoff contenders. “If we can find a way to score one more point than our opponent each week, that’s big. That’s the only guarantee to victory.”
In one sense, Chryst’s club can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten, No. 7 CFP) emerged from its rigorous schedule — five Top 10 opponents in nine games — about as well as it could have hoped, other than going undefeated. The losses to Michigan and Ohio State were by a combined 14 points.
Yet there are no signs of a letdown at Camp Randall Stadium.
Doubted nearly every week this season, the Badgers can win the Big Ten West Division by winning their final three regular-season games. That would give Wisconsin a berth in the Big Ten title game, with the playoff potentially in reach.
The Badgers should be favored in each of their last three games. After Illinois (3-6, 2-4) comes a trip to Purdue, followed by the rivalry game against Minnesota — not that Wisconsin is peeking ahead.
“No, when we do that we lose focus on what we need to do. So just take care of one day at a time, one game at a time and then we’ll see where we are at the end of this thing,” tight end Troy Fumagalli said.
Illinois has lost six straight to Wisconsin, last winning in 2007. But coach Lovie Smith’s team is also brimming with confidence after ending another extended drought with a win over Michigan State last week. It was the Illini’s first victory over the Spartans in a decade.
“I think you just get to the point where you keep pounding the rock, eventually you see a crack,” Smith said. “Now it’s about putting a big game together back-to-back.”
That will not be easy in Madison on homecoming weekend. Here are a couple of reasons why, plus other notes ahead of Saturday’s game:
RED WALL: Wisconsin is third in the FBS in scoring defense (13.7 points per game) and 11th in total defense (302.8 yards), quite the achievement considering the Badgers have lost their starting inside linebackers to injuries for the season. They’ve also had key injuries at nose tackle and in the secondary. But coordinator Justin Wilcox keeps plugging in replacements, with little drop-off in performance.
BY GEORGE: Injuries have led Illinois to play Jeff George Jr. at quarterback, and the third-stringer came through last week against the Spartans with a touchdown pass for the go-ahead score with 1:25 left. It was a confidence-building play for the redshirt sophomore, the son of the former NFL quarterback and Illinois great. But George will be severely tested by Wisconsin’s defense.
GIVE AND TAKE: Illinois quarterbacks have combined to throw just three interceptions, which is tied for fewest in the Big Ten, in spite of the turnover at the position. The defense is also second in the league in fumble recoveries (nine).
IN AND OUT: Wisconsin rotates two quarterbacks, with freshman starter Alex Hornibrook taking the majority of snaps. He has shown poise and accuracy, but will give way to senior Bart Houston at times. Houston is a rocket-armed passer with mobility. The system has had middling success, but Chryst is committed to having both passers ready for duty.
Illinois gives up 407.2 yards per game, which is 11th in the 14-team Big Ten.
BALL HOGS: Running back Corey Clement is averaging 121.5 yards his last four games, and 4.38 yards per carry over that span. Still, the running game has moved along at times in fits and starts. That could change against Illinois, which is giving up 191.9 yards per game on the ground.
AP freelancer Dennis Semrau in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this story.
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