Illinois State vs. Wisconsin Odds & Picks: Defenses to Shine in Week 1
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images. Pictured: Graham Mertz (Wisconsin)
Illinois State vs. Wisconsin Odds
The Wisconsin Badgers enter the year as the No. 18 team in the AP Top 25 preseason poll.
Head coach Paul Chryst is entering his eighth season at the helm. After winning 10 games in four of Chryst’s first five seasons, Wisconsin is just 13-7 over the past two seasons, as offensive production has held the Badgers back.
Wisconsin’s first opportunity to prove it has improved on that side of the ball will come against Illinois State on Saturday.
Illinois State head coach Brock Spack is entering his 14th season with the program and is 89-60 overall.
Last season, he became the winningest coach in program history, but Illinois State went just 4-7. Overall, Illinois State is 1-8 against Big Ten teams under Spack.
How will the Redbirds hold up against Wisconsin’s rushing attack?
Despite playing in the FCS, Illinois State will enter this matchup quite familiar with Wisconsin and Camp Randall Stadium.
Before taking the Illinois State job, Spack was the defensive coordinator at Purdue from 1997-2008. His Boilermakers went 3-5 against Wisconsin in that span.
Offensive coordinator Tony Peterson comes to Illinois State after being let go by Illinois. Wisconsin shut out the Fighting Illini and held them to 93 yards of total offense last season.
Quarterback Zach Annexstad spent the previous four seasons at Wisconsin’s arch rival, Minnesota. Annexstad, despite being a walk-on, started as a true freshman, but eventually lost the job to Tanner Morgan.
Running back Cole Mueller was a breakout star as a true freshman and headlines the Illinois State offense. He ran for 977 yards (third in the Missouri Valley Conference) and six touchdowns in 11 games.
Defensively, Illinois State’s line could be in trouble against Wisconsin’s massive offensive front. The Redbirds have just three defensive lineman over 300 pounds in Noah Hickcox, Cody Zugenbuehler and Jalen Monrrow.
Illinois State only allowed 137.5 rushing yards per game last season, but it will be facing a big step up in competition against the Badgers.
Linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh is the anchor of Illinois State’s defense, and he received preseason First Team All-MVC honors. Last season, he had 73 tackles (8.5 for loss) and four sacks.
Illinois State took to the transfer portal to upgrade its secondary, and added cornerback Deandre Lamont and safeties Sy Dabney and Larry Tracy.
Lamont comes from Central Arkansas, where he had 63 tackles, eight pass breakups, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 2021.
Dabney recorded 75 tackles (three for a loss), one sack and one interception for Bowling Green last season.
Tracy appeared in 15 games over three seasons at Wisconsin.
Wisconsin expected a star to break out offensively in 2021, though perhaps not the one who eventually did so.
Graham Mertz was the highest-ranked quarterback Wisconsin had ever signed in the modern recruiting era. After a sizzling debut against Illinois, Mertz has not played at that level since.
Last season, Mertz threw for 1,958 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing just 59.2% of his passes.
Mertz’s struggles were a big reason why Wisconsin averaged just 25.4 points (85th nationally) and ranked 120th in Finishing Drives. Wisconsin showed faith in Mertz by not bringing in another quarterback from the transfer portal.
However, backup quarterback Chase Wolf suffered a torn meniscus and likely is out for the year, which means 2022 will be Mertz’s show once again.
The star who did emerge was running back Braelon Allen, who ran for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman. Senior Chez Mellusi also returns after rushing for 815 yards and five touchdowns last year. Allen and Mellusi are talented backs and will run behind another talented Wisconsin offensive line.
The Badgers’ offensive line averages 6-foot-6 and 314 pounds across the board. It returns three starters in sophomore Jack Nelson, senior Tyler Beach and junior Joe Tippmann, all of whom have received All-Big Ten honors. Nelson will be moving from right guard to left tackle this season.
For several years, Wisconsin has had one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. Last season, the Badgers ranked fourth in the nation in scoring defense at 16.2 points per game.
Wisconsin held opponents to 2.1 yards per carry and ranked first nationally in Rushing Success Rate Allowed. It was also first in Standard Down Success Rate Allowed and second in Passing Success Rate Allowed.
Wisconsin will be breaking in some new faces in the back seven. However, linebacker Nick Herbig is a great place to start when discussing this defense.
Herbig has amassed 83 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, eight sacks, five passes broken up and two forced fumbles over his first two seasons. He received preseason All-Big Ten honors this season.
Wisconsin did use the transfer portal to upgrade in the secondary. UCLA transfer Jay Shaw had 27 tackles, two interceptions and four passes broken up last season and will start at corner opposite Alexander Smith.
Toledo transfer Justin Clark will provide depth at nickelback and will continue to compete for snaps with Cedric Dort.
Illinois State vs. Wisconsin Betting Pick
Whichever side you back in this game, it is going to be sweaty. You have a team in Wisconsin that is favored by 33 points, but can struggle to score, plays slow and wants to pound the rock.
Then you have a total of 39 points, which could be tight as well.
With that said, I believe the under is the play.
Illinois State’s offense was bad and one-dimensional at the FCS level last season. While the Redbirds are able to run the ball, Wisconsin’s defense is built to shut down the run. Mueller could have a long day, and I could see a shutout brewing.
While I expect Wisconsin to move the ball against ISU, the Redbirds’ defense is good enough to not get completely run off the field. They will just need to limit Allen’s explosive runs and make Wisconsin drive the length of the field.
If so, I see a 31-0 kind of game and that would cash our under ticket.