A frustrating first three quarters gave way to a comfortable win, as the Wisconsin Badgers won their Big Ten home opener to put them in the drivers' seat in the Leaders Division.
No, being in the drivers' seat in the Leaders Division is hardly something to write home about, but given the Badgers' collapse last week and their shaky start on Saturday, it sure is a nice change of scenery. The Illinois Fighting Illini kept things surprisingly interesting for most of the game, but UW's offense sparked to life in the 4th quarter as they turned a 7-7 halftime tie into a 31-14 win.
Wisconsin's first touch of the day was a muffed punt by Kenzel Doe, which he was able to get on top of. It was the first of two muffs for Doe on the day, which led to his eventual benching in favor of Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers' first two series ended in punts, which was followed up by an interception by Joel Stave on the first series of the second quarter. Stave was hit as he threw, allowing Steve Hull to come up with the easy pick.
It took just two plays for Illinois to take advantage of the turnover and score from the Wisconsin 28-yard line. Their first play from scrimmage resulted in a 23-yard completion to Josh Ferguson on a wheel route, and that was followed up by a 5-yard touchdown run by Nathan Scheelhaase on a QB keeper to put the Illini up 7-0.
The Badgers' next two drives resulted in punts as well, as Stave struggled to make throws. To make things a bit simpler for the redshirt freshman QB and get the ball into the hands of one of his playmakers, Matt Canada drew up a perfect play with just under four minutes remaining in the half. On 3rd down and nine, Stave dropped back and sold the play perfectly, inviting blitzers as James White slipped out into the flat. When Stave dumped the ball off for the screen, the offensive linemen ahead of him hardly had anyone to block. White sped past the Illini secondary for a 62-yard touchdown, tying up the game.
Wisconsin got the ball back with 1:56 remaining in the half, along with two timeouts, but strangely seemed content to go to the locker room. They ran offensive plays, but showed little urgency and did not look concerned when they failed to pick up a first down. Illinois didn't attempt to stop the clock either, and the teams contently headed into the locker room tied 7-7.
Things didn't pick up immediately for the Badgers in the 3rd quarter. On their first play of the second half, Stave was hit as he threw yet again, and Abbrederis was forced to play defensive back to prevent another interception. That first drive resulted in a punt, but things went a bit better for the Badgers on the second drive.
Unfortunately, that drive was assisted by a bad penalty call on a play that resulted in injury for an Illinois player. On a 26-yard catch by Derek Watt, the Wisconsin fullback collided with Illinois' Terry Hawthorne. The helmets of the two players contacted, but it was inadvertent. Hawthorne was called for a personal foul, but that was hardly anyone's concern as Hawthorne laid virtually motionless on the field. He was stretchered off and put into an ambulance, but gave a thumbs up before the ambulance drove away. The ESPN broadcasters reported the excellent news that Hawthorne was awake and moving all of his extremities at UW Hospital.
That 15-yard penalty put the Badgers into field goal territory, and Kyle French barely snuck a 46-yard kick inside the right upright to put the Badgers ahead 10-7 with just under six minutes remaining in the 3rd quarter.
Wisconsin was virtually gifted complete control of the game minutes later, by Illinois punter Justin DuVernois. Illinois did well to advance the ball to midfield before being forced into a punt, which should have pinned Wisconsin deep and resulted in a big field position win. Instead, DuVernois' punt went just 10 yards, giving the Badgers excellent field position.
White ripped off a big 22-yard run on 2nd down and 10 to get Wisconsin into Illinois territory. Ball took over for the rest of the drive, and Wisconsin was in the end zone after four more successful plays. Ball picked up eight yards on two carries before a 15-yard pass to Abbrederis got Wisconsin inside the Illinois 10-yard line. One play later, Ball powered in for a 9-yard touchdown run to give Wisconsin a two-score lead.
Illinois' next drive was a three-and-out, and the Badgers scored the dagger on the second play of the following drive. The Illini defense got absolutely smoked on a great pass over the top of the secondary to Abbredaris, who ran in for the virtually uncontested 59-yard score. That made it 24-7 with 11:49 remaining, giving UW a comfortable cushion.
The Illini scored a touchdown on their next drive, capped off by an 8-yard pass from Scheelhaase to Ryan Lankford. Tim Beckman surprisingly went for an onside kick, which was unsuccessful. UW fed Ball five times on the ensuing drive, eventually resulting in a 19-yard touchdown to seal the 31-14 Wisconsin victory.
Wisconsin did not start strong on either side of the ball, but eventually found their groove and played extremely well in the 4th quarter. Stave made good decisions with the ball following the first play of the 3rd quarter until the end of the game, and both White and Ball were effective. Scheelhaase was excellent on the ground early and UW struggled to contain him, but eventually upped their game and kept the Illinois QB to 3.8 yards per carry by the end of the game.
Purdue was waxed by Michigan in West Lafayette earlier, while Indiana threw away a lead against Michigan State, meaning the Badgers are in pole position to grab a Big Ten championship game berth.