The Badgers have yet to play a complete game this year. Although Wisconsin was better for much of the first half Saturday against Illinois -- they picked up nearly one extra yard per play -- mistakes and baffling calls from the sideline defined a brutal 7-7 first half.
The second half saw the much-maligned coaching staff bring out a team that looked rejuvenated. The team attacked with more creativity and openness than in the first half while the defense managed to clamp down on Nathan Scheelhaase's slippery quarterbacking.
After outgaining Illinois in the first half by just 20 yards, the Badgers mustered 271 yards against just 159 for Illinois in the second. The real turning point? Probably Justin DuVernois's shanked punt near the end of the third quarter, a 10-yarder from near midfield to give the Badgers the ball on their own 41, by far their best field position of the game.
The Badgers scored 21 of their 31 points in the fourth quarter, when the urgency required by Illinois's trailing position earned consistently good opening spots on all their drives:
Faced with short fields, the Badgers scored three times. Out of six total touchdowns between the two teams, four were scored on drives starting at the own 40 or closer, and the Badgers looked primed to score on another as the game came to an end.
Some of it was winning the special teams game -- Drew Meyer placed three of five punts inside the 20, DuVernois did so on just one of eight. Jared Abbrederis had a solid punt return to set up one of the Badgers' late touchdown drives as well.
But the big story was the big play: James White's 62-yard touchdown catch-and-run and Joel Stave's bomb to Jared Abbrederis for 59-yard touchdown. White showed the breakaway speed that separates him from the rest of the running back corps on that play and needed just seven total touches to rack up 104 yards -- arguably the best game by a Wisconsin back this year, perhaps with competition from Melvin Gordon's performance against UTEP.
Abbrederis continues to establish himself as one of the best offensive players in the country, let alone the conference. On 34 targets guided from the arms of Danny O'Brien and Joel Stave, Abbrederis has hauled in 27 catches for 516 yards, 19.1 per catch and 15.2 per target. Of the 179 players with at least 20 receptions, just five have averaged more yards per catch than the Badger walk-on. At this point, he has to be considered an NFL prospect, and probably a better one than 4th-rounder Nick Toon.
Stave showed a lot of the shakiness you would expect with a walk-on redshirt freshman. Still, largely thanks to the weapon Abbrederis allows him, Stave has been quite productive. His 9.8 YPA and 9.6 adjusted yards per attempt (accounting for touchdowns and interceptions) would be the best non-Russell Wilson mark (a phrase we should probably get used to around here) since 1993, as long as data is available. Of course, the toughest part of the schedule is yet to come, but were he to settle around 8.8-9.0, he would be squarely in the John Stocco-Jim Sorgi range, a good place for a freshman.
On defense, the Badgers finally managed an interception, putting an end to one of the more dubious stats of the season:
Seriously, how DOES Wisconsin break up 33 passes and not pick off a single one of them?— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) October 2, 2012
Now it's at least one of 34, as a first half interception finally put the Badgers on the pick board. They didn't do anything with it, though -- another dubious clock management scene for Bret Bielema and staff ended the first half instead.
The defense was more than adequate aside from the turnover game, holding Illinois to 4.48 yards per play and a 37.5% success rate. Either you can move the sticks little by little or you can explode with the big play (ideally both); Illinois managed neither.
Nathan Scheelhaase looked like he would cause some problems, and his mobility did at times -- he managed two 20-yard runs and two 20-yard passes. But the negative or marginal plays added up and in effect canceled them out: five sacks/negative rushes, five two-yard rushes and five three yard rushes in addition to 11 incomplete passes resulted in just a 5.1 yards per play average, half of Stave's passing average on the day.
Although the whole of the performance was good, the big plays inevitably lead to some fear over what Braxton Miller might be able to do to this defense when Ohio State comes in on November 17th. Scheelhaase plays proxy to Miller in his ability to make plays with his legs even more than with his arms. Wisconsin did a good job Saturday of stuffing Scheelhaase on the myriad plays he tried to escape -- many of his two or three yard runs were probably designed passes. Those are the times Miller can be at his most dangerous, and Wisconsin will need to do much of the same against the much tougher test of scrambling quarterbacks next month.
Overall, Wisconsin did more or less what they were supposed to against the Illini. Vegas favored Wisconsin by 14, F/+ thought they would win by 21; the Badgers split the difference. The offense discovered its rhythm with good field position and Joel Stave continued to do an efficient job at quarterback; the defense mostly shut down and offense it should mostly shut down. With Purdue laying an egg at Michigan, the stage is well set for the Badgers in a critical Leaders Division game next week in West Lafayette (don't think too hard about that sentence) -- especially if the second half Badgers show up for the whole game.