The college football schedule gets a bit more crowded with the start of Big Ten play this weekend. The 14th ranked Wisconsin Badgers kick things off Friday night against Illinois (7 p.m. kickoff) at Camp Randall Stadium.
Highly touted quarterback Graham Mertz makes his first collegiate start for the Badgers. The redshirt freshman from Kansas takes over for Jack Coan, who is out after having foot surgery.
While the Badgers are big favorites, Mertz will be challenged by an Illinois defense that ranked in the top 10 in takeaways last season. The Illini recovered 16 fumbles and intercepted 12 passes last season, which ranked fourth among FBS teams. Three of those 28 takeaways came against the Badgers last season, when the Illini came from behind to upset Wisconsin 24-23 in Champaign.
The Badgers have stressed ball security with Mertz during training camp and need that mentality to translate to the field on gameday. Coan threw just five interceptions for the Badgers last season. They’ll need Mertz to be stingy in that department this season.
The Badgers will also used the early part of the season to find out just who they will be able to count on during the season at tailback. With Jonathan Taylor gone to the NFL, senior Garrett Groshek takes over as the starter. But the Badgers will also initially count on Nakia Watson and Isaac Guerendo to carry some of the load.
Defensively, the Badgers have to replace linebackers Zach Baun and Chris Orr. The two combined for 24 sacks and 33 1/2 tackles for loss last season. Two players that will be asked to step in and make plays early on are freshman OLB Nick Herbig from Hawaii and sophomore ILB Leo Chenal from Grantsburg, Wisconsin.
The Badgers are expected to be rock solid up front as well as the secondary with plenty of returning depth in both areas.
Wisconsin has won seven straight home games over the Illini dating back to 2004. It’s the longest current streak of its kind for the Badgers, who also have a seven game home victory streak over Purdue dating back to 2005.