Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement ran wild on Illinois Saturday afternoon, combining for 339 rushing yards in a 38-28 Wisconsin victory. Though some stated the running game was the only positive out of the closer-than-many-wanted contest, linebackers Vince Biegel and Leon Jacobs led the Badgers' defense to a season-high six sacks and 11 tackles for loss in an uneven performance.
By the numbers
8th: FBS rank for Wisconsin in total defense heading into Saturday (285.6 yards per game)
288: Total yards gained by Illinois
22nd: FBS rank for Wisconsin's rushing defense entering Saturday (109.6 yards per game)
153: Total rushing yards gained by Illinois
65: Total rushing yards gained by Illinois through first three quarters
11th: FBS rank for Wisconsin's scoring defense entering Saturday (15.6 points per game)
28: Number of points given up by Wisconsin
More from the Game
More from the Game
15th: FBS rank for Wisconsin's passing defense (176.0)
135: Total passing yards by Illinois
1: Number of turnovers forced by Wisconsin
3: Number of red-zone touchdowns by Illinois
6: Number of sacks by Wisconsin
11: Number of tackles for loss by Wisconsin
12: Number of tackles for Jacobs
Illinois is a spread team, often in shotgun formation with 10 or 11 personnel it appeared in a 2x2 or 3x1 (two receivers split to each side of the ball, or three receivers "trips" one-side with a single receiver on the other) look. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda mostly countered with a nickel look -- often with two defensive linemen and a slew of linebackers, Biegel and fellow outside backer Joe Schobert, as psuedo-linemen standing up.
Whenever the Illini went to a 12 or 13 personnel, you'd see more of the 3-4 base defense we've come to expect out of the Badgers.
What went right?
1. Pressure, pressure, pressure. Aranda dialed up some blitzes and pressure out of the nickel looks that kept Reilly O'Toole on his toes all game. Jacobs led the team with 1.5 sacks in his first career start -- replacing the injured senior Marcus Trotter at inside linebacker -- but Derek Landisch, Biegel, Konrad Zagzebski, Chikwe Obasih and former walk-on Ben Ruechel all got in on the sack party.
"Leon is a tremendous athlete," head coach Gary Andersen said Saturday.
"It was great to see the sacks. It was great to see the defense put themselves in position that way and rush the passers physically. It was good. I guess, what was it, six, six sacks, that's the most we've gotten yet this year and we left two or three of them out there on the field."
That was just in sacks. The Badgers' defense tallied 11 TFLs total, and Biegel led the team with 2.5.
O'Toole was able to gain some scramble yards once he evaded being sacked. If not for the six sacks causing 30 yards of negative yardage, O'Toole would've rushed 59 times on 11 carries.
2. Jacobs. As mentioned above, it was the first start for the sophomore linebacker. He's bounced around inside and outside this season due to personnel decisions by Aranda and Andersen, but he made some athletic plays with his 1.5 sacks and two TFLs.
"Leon proved today that he's ready to get in the moment in a Big Ten game and make some plays, which was great to see," Andersen said.
"That's why he came here. And he showed to me today that he has the toughness play in a Big Ten game and play throughout the whole game. Those are the questions that are never answered until you get yourself into the moment because it's not spring ball and it's not fall camp. This is big-time ball and your toughness is going to be challenged, every snap in this conference and he answered that today."
"I got a good start out there, made a few tackles," Jacobs said post-game."I thought I started off hot, at the end I had a missed assignment, but our defense came back and got it back, so it was good."
3. Biegel. His 2.5 TFLs and his general ability to get after the ballcarrier helped keep Illinois' offense from consistent efficiency. His fourth-down stop of Illini running back Josh Ferguson swung momentum back toward the Badgers, as Wisconsin drove down the field in a two-play, 64-yard scoring drive that culminated in Gordon sprinting to a 30-yard touchdown run and a 21-14 lead.
"Vince Biegel, I would guess, before watching the tape, that that is his best game as a Badger," Andersen said. "He has high expectations to play at a high level and he did and he made that play at fourth down and we were able to get ten points quickly."
4. Mike Caputo. He did whiff on the play-action pass in coverage that led to Illinois' first touchdown of the day, but another eight tackles -- seven solo -- for the junior who stepped up big tackling almost as an extra linebacker in the nickel looks.
5. No big gains in passing game. Wisconsin did give up two touchdown passes and was victim to three pass-interference penalties (as will be noted below). However, the Badgers only gave up a long of 26 yards on 24 attempts. Granted, the loss of Illinois starting quarterback Wes Lunt helped lessen the threat of the passing game, but it was another solid performance by the secondary after holding Northwestern's Trevor Siemian to under 200 yards passing last week.
What went wrong?
1. Streaks of points. Illinois struck quickly in the first quarter, scoring two unanswered touchdowns to take an early 14-7 lead before Wisconsin turned the tables starting in the second quarter.
"14 points early and 14 points late and that can't happen," Andersen said. "But there was some definite momentum changes in this game. We hung in there, and did some positive things, but you know, somebody's got to ask the question, so I'll say it right now, our special teams have got to get better."
2. Punting game leading to great Illini field position. Great segue, right? Wisconsin's defense, on three of Illinois' scoring drives, was backed up into its own territory. The Illini gained only 102 yards on those three scoring drives -- how, you ask? They started at Wisconsin's 31, 42, and 29-yard line.
3. Fourth-quarter rushing defense. Through three quarters, Illinois only gained 65 yards on 24 carries. It ended the game with 153. Eighty-eight yards in that quarter were mostly from backup quarterback Aaron Bailey, who ended up being the Illini's leading rusher with 75 total yards on 12 carries after Illinois head coach Tim Beckman decided to burn his redshirt.
Andersen admitted post-game that Illinois switched the scheme of the offense, going to a triple-option look that threw the Badgers off, including Bailey's 29-yard run that cut the lead to 38-21.
"We had felt that that was a possibility with the other quarterback," Andersen said. "We had prepared in practice for that, but obviously we did not prepare well enough for that and they executed and we did not."
4. Penalties leading to first downs. Four of Illinois' 20 first downs were from penalties by Wisconsin's defense. Three were pass-interference calls on sophomore cornerback Sojourn Shelton, with the other being a roughing the passer call on Obasih in the first quarter. Only one of the penalties extended a drive that led to a touchdown.
Andersen on if he feels better, worse or the same about this team after Saturday's performance:
No, I feel a lot better about this team and I continually feel better about them. It's just I've never been around a team that continually wants to grow and learn as much as this team does.
And it's every practice, it's every meeting, their attention to detail, a lot of times you can tell just by walking into a special teams meeting, and I said today, I've already spoke, we did not play well enough on special teams obviously.
But when you walk into those meetings at 2:25 every single day, 2:30 whenever it starts, their eyes are right, their minds are right. Coach Busch, Coach Genyk stands up and gets ready to start the meeting, and they are locked and loaded and they are excited about the opportunity to be able to learn and prepare, and I feel the same way about the offense and the defense.
The weight room was good. It's just a fun team to coach. And we have had our frustrations, we have had our ups and downs. But you know, I'm damn glad to be their coach and there's nowhere else I'd rather be.