MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Illinois travels to Wisconsin this weekend with both teams looking for some answers — and a win — as the Big Ten season gets under way in earnest.
Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) was thought to have a walk in the park to Indianapolis and the conference championship game with Leaders Division foes Ohio State and Penn State ineligible this season. Instead, the Badgers have been pushed to the brink by a Championship Subdivision school and a mid-major opponent and they have lost two road games against BCS foes.
"We haven't lost many games around here and it is kind of uncharted waters for these guys to have two defeats within the first five weeks of the season," coach Bret Bielema said. "The one thing I've tried to stress - and our coaches have emphasized daily - is losing is not an option. It is not acceptable.
"If you let it creep into your head or into your mind or (become) a part of your DNA it will become who you are overnight."
Wisconsin's main problem has been running the football, an abnormality for a school known for its running backs and beefy offensive linemen. A year after averaging 235.6 yards per game on the ground, Wisconsin is averaging only 125.6 — last in the Big Ten and 96th nationally. As a result, Wisconsin ranks ninth in the conference in scoring (22.6 ppg) and last in total offense (309.2 ypg).
"Everyone wants to blame it on (the offensive line) and that's fine with us," said junior center Travis Frederick. "We really don't mind the burden. We just need to come out and make the holes bigger. If the holes not big enough, we have to make it bigger. If we don't play well, the whole team doesn't play well."
Senior tailback Montee Ball, a Heisman finalist a season ago, has felt the sting of an offense that has already changed its quarterback and fired its offensive line coach. After carrying the ball 93 times for 511 yards and 13 touchdowns through Wisconsin's first five games last season, Ball has 125 carries for 450 yards and six scores over the same period this season.
In a 30-27 loss at Nebraska last week, Wisconsin managed only 12 yards on 18 second-half carries; a stark change after Ball rushed for three touchdowns in the first 34:31 to build a 27-10 lead.
"(It's) very frustrating," said Ball. "We just have to bring the energy, bring the urgency."
The same can be said for Illinois (2-3, 0-1) under first-year coach Tim Beckman. Eager to turn the program around after a six-game, regular-season losing streak to end last season, Beckman has instead been forced to cope with a string of injuries that have affected both sides of the ball, including starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
Illinois has been outscored 87-31 the last two weeks and lost last week's conference opener to Penn State 35-7 — at home.
"Looking back at this last game, we had plays there," said Scheelhaase, who played his first full game Saturday. "It's just a matter of a guy maybe missing what he supposed to do here. Against the teams that we're going to be facing week after week, it's not going to be very drive that you get to the red zone, and when you do you've got to capitalize."
Both teams are expected to be healthier than they were last weekend. Wisconsin is expecting to get defensive ends Brendan Kelly (hamstring) and Pat Muldoon (hand) back into the rotation while Illinois safety Supo Sanni (knee) made his senior debut last week and had a career-high 10 tackles.
Beckman is still waiting on the status of junior linebacker Jonathan Brown, who leads the team with 29 tackle, five tackle for loss, 1.5 sacks. Brown practiced Wednesday.
"This isn't the NFL where we get guys on waiver wires or things like that. We play with who we have," said Beckman. "That's just what we have to do."