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Ball puts Badgers on his back as Wisconsin tops Illini

Ball ran for 224 yards and two touchdowns Saturday at Illinois.
Ball ran for 224 yards and two touchdowns Saturday at Illinois.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Montee Ball doesn't need halftime speeches.

After the Badgers suffered through a sluggish first half and went to the locker room at the half down 17-7, Ball put his headphones on and went into his own zone.

He must have been listening to some good music.

The result was a huge second half for Ball that included 164 rushing yards and two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving) as the Badgers scored 21 unanswered points to beat Illinois 28-17 Saturday.

"Actually I wasn't listening because I had my headphones on," Ball said about what the coaches told the players during halftime. "I was talking to myself and getting myself ready to make big plays in the second half.

"I was in my own zone. No disrespect to coach, I'm sure it was a great speech, but I was really talking to myself and getting myself ready for the second half."

The Badgers only managed 93 yards in the first half as Illinois jumped out to a 17-7 lead. Wisconsin's only touchdown in the first 30 minutes came when Illinois punter Justin DuVernois fumbled a snap inside his own 5-yard line. The Badgers gained possession and Ball scored on a 1-yard touchdown run two plays later.

Meanwhile, the defense allowed 15 first half first downs to a team that only managed one first down the entire first half against Michigan the week prior.

But the second half was a completely different story as the UW defense only allowed four first downs and shut the Illini out the rest of the way.

"Obviously the offense has picked up the defense (this season)," head coach Bret Bielema said. "I heard our defensive guys talking about it at halftime, 'Now it's our time to pick up the offense.' Exactly what they said came true."

Illinois' second half drive chart looked like this: fumble, interception, punt, interception, interception.

Meanwhile, Ball knew he had to put the offense on his back and he did just that. 26 of his 38 carries came in the second half as he racked up 224 yards on the day with two rushing touchdowns and a receiving touchdown.

"That's what I was telling myself during halftime," Ball said. "I gotta make plays"

One of those plays was a ridiculous 17-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter in which he spun out of a tackle and ran away from the entire Illini defense. The run had many in the press box wondering out-loud, "Why is this guy not getting more Heisman consideration?"

Ball, who said the Illini front-seven was the best he had seen all season, relished the opportunity to take over the game by being fed the ball on almost every second-half play.

"That's why I chose this university and that's why I love this place because they'll put pressure on players and that's what we love," he said.

Missing Konz

Center Ryan Groy, who started for the injured Peter Konz Saturday, really struggled. After he snapped a ball over the head of quarterback Russell Wilson in third quarter resulting in a 19-yard loss, offensive line coach Bob Bostad decided to switch Groy and Travis Frederick, who is the regular starter at left guard.

Explaining the bad snap, Groy said he missed the cadence call in the huddle and didn't know he was supposed to look for Wilson to lift his leg to signal the snap. So when Wilson finally yelled out, "Go!", Groy rushed the snap and launched over the head of his quarterback. Luckily for the Badgers, Wilson was able to fall on the football to prevent Illinois from take possession at Wisconsin's 23-yard line. At the time, the Badgers were still losing 17-14.

Nortman Comes Up Big

One of the biggest plays in the game came on the very next snap. Brad Nortman launched a 74-yard punt that was downed at the Illinois three yard-line, completing flipping field position. The defense forced a three-and-out setting up a quick 44-yard scoring drive for the offense that put the Badgers ahead for good.

Finishing On The Road

Saturday's game was by far the Badgers' closest win of the season and you can tell after the game that Bielema and the players had a sense of relief after losing in heartbreaking fashion at Michigan State and Ohio State earlier this season.

"We finally learned how to finish," right guard Kevin Zeitler said.

Capital One Jinx?

As he left the post-game interview room, Bielema shook hands with two Capital One Bowl officials, one of which said, "See you in Indy."

Bielema, of course, replied: "Hopefully."

The Badgers have to beat Penn State next Saturday to earn a berth to the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game.

Injury Report

The Badgers came to Champaign pretty banged up with as many as six starters in doubt, but they left in pretty good shape.

Left tackle Ricky Wagner was the only player injured Saturday as he suffered what he called "a minor MCL sprain." He returned to the game though and played on the injury.