- Associated Press - Friday, October 10, 2014

Uncertainty at quarterback this late into the season can mean problems for an offense.

Both Illinois and Wisconsin hope they can sort through their issues behind center on Saturday and prevent falling further behind in the Big Ten standings.

The Illini (3-3, 0-2) need Riley O’Toole to step in for injured starter Wes Lunt when they visit Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers (3-2, 0-1) are hoping either Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy can impress enough to take sole possession of the job.

Production will be more important that who actually starts, coach Gary Andersen said.

“We’re going into it thinking they’re both going to play,” he said. “Just because one person takes the first snap doesn’t mean, ‘Oh, they’re ahead now.’”

If Wisconsin goes with Stave, it would be his first start since getting over throwing issues that caused him to miss the first four games of the year. The starter in 2013, Stave has a stronger arm than McEvoy, who is a mobile quarterback.

McEvoy started the first five games of 2014 with mixed results. He showed flashes of his playmaking ability with his legs, though throwing accuracy was a work in progress.

Andersen indicated there will be packages designed with each quarterback in mind. He even suggested this week that both Stave and McEvoy could be on the field at the same time. McEvoy was tried at receiver last year.

“We have to find a quarterback that can function and run the football as best we can be,” Andersen said.

At least the Badgers can lean on star running back Melvin Gordon to settle the offense. The nation’s leading rusher at 174.2 yards per game has dashed back into the conversation as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate following a slow start.

Illinois doesn’t have that luxury. The Illini are last in the 14-team Big Ten in rushing at 96 yards per game. That makes the loss of Lunt, who is out at least a month with broken left fibula, especially painful.

Illinois was tops in the league in passing offense with Lunt at 332.8 yards per game. O’Toole doesn’t have the same arm strength as Lunt.

“Reilly’s got to (think), ‘OK, I’ve got to throw it a little bit sooner because maybe I can’t get the ball down there as far. He’s got to see that,” said offensive coordinator Bill Cubit.

Some other things to watch Saturday in the 81st meeting between the Big Ten West division schools:

RUN DEFENSE: The ugliest part of Illinois’ 38-27 loss to Purdue last week was the Illini run defense.

The Boilermakers piled up 349 yards. Nebraska rushed for 458 yards the previous week against Illinois.

Illini linebacker Mason Monheim said it was painful to watch the film from the Purdue game.

“There’s a good play here, a good play there and boom, they hit us for a strike. And you know it’s coming. It’s tough,” he said.

GREAT GORDON: The junior has set career highs in rushing in two of the last three games, including 259 last week in the loss at Northwestern.

And he thinks he can do more.

“You know, when you walk by that young man after the game and the first thing he does is walk up to you and say ‘Sorry, coach’ - are you kidding me? That is a class individual,” Andersen said. “He’s a great kid and deserves what he’s getting in the run game.”

RUN DEFENSE, PART II: The Wisconsin defense is looking to bounce back against the run after giving up 162 yards on 33 carries to Northwestern’s Justin Jackson. The Badgers are fifth against the run in Big Ten at 109.6 yards per game.

SLOW STARTS: The Wisconsin offense has had trouble all year getting going early in games. Sometimes the trouble is poor blocking. Other times, turnovers are to blame. Whatever the reasons, Andersen hopes his team can get over them on Saturday.

BEST WEAPON: Freshman receiver Mike Dudek has been a bright spot for Illinois this season, and Cubit would be surprised if he doesn’t remain a top passing target for O’Toole. Dudek has three touchdowns and is fifth in the Big Ten in yards per game with 89.8.

___

Associated Press writer David Mercer in Champaign, Illinois contributed to this story.

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