Friday, October 23, 2020, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin, 8 p.m. ET
Fighting Illini at Badgers Betting Preview: Fighting Illini (+19.5), Badgers (-19.5)
Illinois Fighting Illini
The unranked Fighting Illini enter this year’s meeting with the Badgers as nearly three-touchdown underdogs, which is an improvement over last year when they were 30.5-point ‘dogs and pulled off a 24-23 win on James McCourt’s 39-yard field goal as time expired.
It is the signature win of coach Lovie Smith’s four seasons with the Illini and kickstarted a four-game winning streak that got the Illini bowl eligibility for the first time under Smith.
Smith is aware of the betting line for this year’s meeting.
“It kind of gets you going a little bit,” he said. “So we’ll be ready to go.”
Smith has more to work with this time around. A veteran roster includes 25 seniors, more than they had in the last two years combined, and four offensive linemen who have combined for 125 career starts.
“I think we’re a strong football team,” Smith said. “For the most part, our best players are back and we’ve added quite a few players. We’re excited about seeing how we fit into the landscape.”
Returnees include quarterback Brandon Peters, who transferred from Michigan where he had four career starts and passed for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns in 11 games last season. Southern California transfer Josh Imatorbhebhe is back after recording a team-best 33 receptions for 634 yards and nine touchdowns last year.
Wisconsin expected running back Jonathan Taylor to depart for the National Football League drafter after rushing for 2,003 yards last year, but the No. 14 Badgers were expecting to have Jack Coan back at quarterback to lead the way.
Coan passed for 2,727 yards for the Badgers in 2019 but injured a foot in practice on October 10, which means redshirt freshman Graham Mertz will get the start against the Illini.
“No doubt he’s ready for that moment,” Wisconsin quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr said of Mertz. “I feel that he’s worked really hard to understand defenses and recognize why he’s going where he’s going with the football.”
Mertz completed nine of 10 passes for 73 yards in two appearances last year. He won’t have leading receiver Quintez Cephus or No. 2 Jake Ferguson, but Danny Davis (30 catches for 250 yards) returns along with Kendric Pryor (23-278).
The best thing Mertz may have going for him is a stout defense that returns eight starters, taking the pressure off of the offense to score a lot.
Fighting Illini at Badgers Betting Pick for 23, 2020
Peters passed for only 174 yards in the Illini’s win over then-No. 6 Wisconsin last year but his 28-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter got the Illini in position to win the game on a field goal. Wisconsin’s Coan passed for 274 yards that game but won’t be around for this year’s rematch because of his foot injury.
Fighting Illini at Badgers Betting Pick:
Badgers 31, Illinois 17
Fighting Illini at Badgers Best Bet for October 23, 2020
Wisconsin’s defense should keep things under control, but the Badgers won’t have the home crowd backing as no fans will be in attendance at Camp Randall, where the Badgers are 62-9 over the last 10 years. “Our emphasis is bring your own juice,” safety Collin Wilder said. “We have had practices without music, and it is going to be quiet in there. It is going to be up to us to bring our own energy.”
Fighting Illini at Badgers Best Bet: UNDER 51
–Field Level Media