The learning curve is getting easier at Wisconsin.
The 25th-ranked Badgers feel they're hitting their stride after a dominant win, and they'll look to stay focused for a potentially tricky trip to Champaign on Saturday night to face Illinois.
Coach Gary Andersen switched to a 3-4 scheme and installed new packages in his first year in Madison. It's been a learning process, but Wisconsin seems to be buying in to Andersen's methods. The Badgers never let up and finished strong in hammering then-No. 19 Northwestern 35-6 last Saturday.
"I sit back and always look at effort, and there were some extra effort plays that just jump out at you," Andersen said Monday.
Like linebacker Chris Borland's leaping sack on third down in the first quarter to hold the Wildcats to a field goal, effectively setting the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Or freshman linebacker Vince Biegel's tipped pass to thwart another third-down play.
The list of names could go on -- and that's partly by design.
Borland is one of the mainstays. Otherwise, Andersen is mixing and matching.
"I think they're adjusting to the amount of packages. I think they understand there aren't 11 starters," Andersen said. "It's week by week, opponent by opponent, matchup by matchup."
Illinois is next. The depth chart may list 11 positions, but Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) could have as many as 15 players who could be classified as starters based on playing time, senior defensive back Dezmen Southward said.
"Nothing has to be said," Southward answered when asked if he had to console or encourage teammates about snaps. "This is a veteran-led team and they understand how this ship is steered."
On the offensive side, there's no question about how the Badgers plan to attack. Wisconsin is fifth in the nation in rushing yards per game, averaging 298.2, and leads the FBS at 7.1 yards per carry.
Melvin Gordon is third in the country with 870 yards on the ground and James White is 22nd with 598. They've combined for 13 of the Badgers' 18 rushing touchdowns.
Illinois (3-2, 0-1) is clearly better in many areas than last season's two-win team, but after giving up 335 yards on the ground in a 39-19 loss at Nebraska on Oct. 5, there's still plenty of room to improve.
The Illini are surrendering almost 200 yards rushing per game and just shy of 450 yards a game in all, good for 11th in the 12-team conference. Washington had 615 yards in a 34-24 victory last month, and Nebraska, a team with a run-until-you-stop-us approach similar to Wisconsin, had 521.
"They understood that they were a little bit manhandled in Lincoln," coach Tim Beckman said.
It also happened last season at Wisconsin, according to linebacker Jonathan Brown.
"We were in that game most of the game," he said.
Right up until the end of the third quarter, when the Illini trailed 10-7. Then the Badgers used two touchdown runs by Montee Ball and a long scoring pass to roll to a 31-14 win.
Illinois should get some help this week with the anticipated return of Teko Powell, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive tackle who played some last season as a freshman but had missed all but two games this fall with an injury. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks says he's athletic enough and big enough to help against the pass and the run.
Illinois could try to hold onto the ball as much as possible, keeping Gordon and White on the sideline, but offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said he tried that to some degree in the loss to the Cornhuskers and it didn't work.
"Our kids play best when we try to play fast," he said.
So if the Illini offense doesn't chew up the clock, how do they prevent the Badgers from grinding down Illinois' defensive line and linebackers?
"That's the million-dollar question," Banks said. "You've got to be able to move your front a little bit, put them in situations where they're not constantly taking a pounding."
Illinois has been outscored 175-98 while dropping its last six home games against ranked Big Ten opponents since beating No. 5 Wisconsin 31-26 on Oct. 6, 2007.