NEWS

Badgers hope to stop salvage season by beating Illinois

John Supinie

These days, Wisconsin fans have a simple question for coach Bret Bielema: What have you done for me lately?

Wisconsin's first four-game losing streak to start Big Ten Conference play in 12 years not only knocked the Badgers out of the top 10 but sent Bielema into the first rough stretch of his career.

Bielema led the Badgers to a 21-5 record in his first two seasons -- more wins than any Big Ten coach's first two years except for Michigan's Fielding Yost (22) and Ohio State's Jim Tressel (21) -- before this year's slide that even has fans growling about his clothing choice.

"A couple comments were that people don't like my windbreaker on the sideline,'' Bielema said. "I thought back to my freshman year (of coaching) when I was told by the merchandising people that they couldn't keep enough windbreakers in stock.

"It goes to show when you're winning, everybody agrees with what you're doing. When you're losing, everybody's got all the answers, because the right answer isn't out there. I appreciate that, and thank God that we have fans that care.''

They don't care for the Badgers' slide. Ranked No. 8 after winning its first three games, Wisconsin (3-4 overall, 0-4 in the Big Ten) hosts Illinois (4-3, 2-2) in a Big Ten game Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2).

Few saw all this losing on the horizon for Wisconsin, which returned 17 starters from a team that went 9-4 a year ago.

"I've seen buddies go through this, even within a year with how things can change in such a quick amount of time,'' Bielema said. "You chose to get into this profession. Sometimes the high points are a lot better than the low points. Unfortunately, you have to go through both. We're in a low right now.

"Surprisingly, it might energize you. During this time, you probably double your effort and triple the time you watch film trying to get things back on track.''

Wisconsin blew a 19-point third-quarter lead in a loss at Michigan to start Big Ten play, then allowed a touchdown with just over a minute left in a 20-17 loss to Ohio State. In losses to Penn State and Iowa in the last two weeks, the Badgers were outscored 86-23.

Star running back P.J. Hill's status remained uncertain for the game Saturday because of a left leg injury, but Hill walked with only a slight limp and was optimistic he would play against Illinois, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. If Hill can't play, the Wisconsin offense falls on quarterback Dustin Sherer, a junior who made his first college start last weekend, plus backup running backs John Clay and Zach Brown.

Sherer completed 17 of 34 passes for 161 yards with two interceptions against the Hawkeyes, but he didn't lead the Badgers on a touchdown drive. Sophomore Scott Tolzien will get the rest of the snaps in practice not taken by Sherer. Senior Allan Evridge, who started the first six games, dropped to third string.

"The quarterback is always critical,'' Bielema said. "Illinois has a lot of success now with the development and growth of Juice Williams. That part's easy to tell.''

Hill has 604 yards rushing, nearly as many yards as Clay (392) and Brown (215) combined.

"If a few balls would have bounced differently, we would have a whole 'nother season,'' Brown said. "The season isn't over. We just have to stay motivated. We can't give up. We're motivated right now.''

Knee injuries also forced Wisconsin to go with two players making their first college starts on the offensive line in the last two weeks, but left tackle Gabe Carimi hoped to return from a knee injury suffered against Ohio State.

A year ago, Iowa ended a four-game losing streak with a 10-6 win over visiting Illinois, by far the worst loss in an otherwise remarkable Illini season. The Illini don’t want a repeat of that this year.

"We learned a valuable lesson last year against Iowa,'' Illini middle linebacker Brit Miller said. "When a team has its back agsint the wall, they come to play. Learning from Iowa could make us better. Wisconsin is a tough team. They've just struggled a little bit.''

If there's any question about that, just look at all those windbreakers on the shelves.

John Supinie can be reached atJohnsupinie@aol.com.

A look at Wisconsin

Record: 3-4 overall, 0-4 in the Big Ten.

So far: Def. Akron 38-17, def. Marshall 51-14, def. Fresno State 13-10, lost to Michigan 27-25, lost to Ohio State 20-17, lost to Penn State 48-7, lost to Iowa 38-16.

Coach: Bret Bielema, 24-9 in his third season at Wisconsin and overall.

Players to watch: RB P.J. Hill, TE Travis Beckum, TE Garrett Graham, MLB Jaevery McFadden, DE Matt Shaughnessy, PK Philip Welch.

Did you know?: Illinois and Wisconsin played the last tie game in Division I history, a 3-3 deadlock to end the 1995 season.

Quote: "Dustin didn't play a clean game and, by any means, didn't set the world on fire. Obviously, accuracy was an issue on a couple throws.'' -- Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, on quarterback Dustin Sherer.