LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – DECEMBER 30: Quarterback Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers looks on during a time out against the Arizona State Sun Devils during the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl at Allegiant Stadium on December 30, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Badgers defeated the Sun Devils 20-13. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

Wisconsin Badgers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini: What to watch for

Wisconsin Badgers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini: What to watch for

The Wisconsin Badgers (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) will head back to Madison to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) on Saturday.

The Badgers head into the matchup coming off of an embarrassing loss in Columbus to the Ohio State Buckeyes, where they lost 52-21. Conversely, the Fighting Illini are coming off a 31-0 victory against the Chattanooga Mocs. Both teams are looking to notch their first win in conference play on Saturday.

Here are some items to watch for in Saturday’s contest:

How will Graham Mertz respond following a poor performance in week four?

Last weekend, the Badgers fell to Ohio State in a blowout. Wisconsin looked out of sorts in all three phases and was outclassed by the Buckeye’s talented team and coaching staff. Heading into Saturday, an essential item to watch will be how Graham Mertz responds.

The Badgers quarterback struggled in week four’s matchup after throwing an interception on his first pass attempt of the game. It seemed like the third-year starter lost his confidence after that interception, and things quickly went off the rails for Wisconsin.

Despite the poor stat line, Mertz spread the ball well to his receivers, which he has excelled at all season long. All in all, Mertz put together a stat line of 94 yards, one touchdown, and an interception, a stat line that seemed out of the ordinary after the impressive year he has had.

Mertz has looked like the best version of himself this season, putting together a stat line of 791 yards and seven touchdowns through the air. If the third-year starter is looking to return to his previous level of play, he will need to spread the ball to multiple receivers again and do so with confidence.

The Kansas native will be a key player to watch in this weekend’s showdown as he looks to regain his confidence and continue to play at the level he was before the loss.

Will Jim Leonhard and the Badgers’ defense bounce back?

In week four, the Badger’s defense was flat-out embarrassed by Ohio State’s explosive offense. It seemed that CJ Stroud and company got everything they wanted, and there was no stopping the passing attack.

Against the Buckeyes, the secondary was torn apart. Stroud posted a remarkable stat line of 281 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception. Heading into the matchup against Illinois, the secondary will be one of the key groups to watch.

The Fighting Illini are averaging 245 passing yards per game this season. Tommy DeVito has excelled through the air this year, putting up a total of 954 passing yards. While DeVito is not on the same level as Stroud, the Syracuse transfer has shown plenty of promise as the Fighting Illini’s QB1. The Badgers’ secondary will need to bounce back this week, and with Alexander Smith once again listed as out with injury, that may be tougher than anticipated.

Another group on defense to keep an eye on is the Badgers’ pass rush. While players such as Keeanu Benton and Nick Herbig have put up solid performances on the edge, the production has been less than expected. The Badgers will need to get into the backfield early and often to force DeVito to make mistakes.

Wisconsin’s defense is a very talented group, and how they respond after a poor performance will be a key item to watch this weekend.

Who will step up in the receiving game with Clay Cundiff out?

Wisconsin suffered a massive blow in week four when Clay Cundiff sustained an injury. The junior tight end suffered a significant leg injury, and there has been no update on his status yet.

Cundiff set career highs in week two against Washington State and showed promise in his pass-catching abilities. With Cundiff now out with injury, who will step up?

It’s no secret that Mertz incorporates his tight ends often in his passing game. He did it with Jake Ferguson, and it was the same story once Cundiff took over.

The Badgers have plenty of talent at the tight end position with Hayden Rucci and Jake Eschenbach. However, at this time, it’s unclear who will get the start against Illinois.

Rucci has appeared in two games for the Badgers this season. The redshirt junior has a stat line of four receptions for 47 yards this season.

Eschenbach, a redshirt senior, has also appeared in two games this season. The 6-foot-6 tight end has hauled in two catches for 33 yards this season.

Although both players have seen limited reps this season, one must step up and give their quarterback a great option in the receiving game. Whoever steps in to replace Cundiff will have big shoes to fill, and they will be a key player to watch in this weekend’s game.

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