Redshirt senior Joel Stave was sacked and shaken up with what was later confirmed as a head injury. He came back in for the next series and helped drive the Badgers -- but still appeared not right.
Enter Bart Houston, last year's back-up/rugby-style punter. The redshirt junior came into the game and asserted himself when pressed into action. Along with a former walk-on leading the Badgers in both rushing and receiving in wide receiver Alex Erickson, Wisconsin did enough offensively to pull off the 24-13 win. This all despite not having six contributors on offense by the end of Saturday's game.
1. Houston stepping up. There's no quarterback controversy. Really, there's not -- but the heralded prep standout from California shone when the Badgers needed him in relief mode. He threw the ball with some zip and, for 22 of 33 passes, got it to his receiving targets. He passed for 232 yards on the afternoon, and though he did throw two interceptions (more on that later), it was an impressive performance for Houston.
2. Erickson's big day. The Darlington, Wis., native had a huge game. He hauled in 10 receptions for 96 yards and a 9-yard touchdown pass from Houston to close out UW's scoring in the fourth quarter. He also ignited Wisconsin's offense in the third quarter, as his fly/jet sweep went for 56 yards with the Badgers eventually scoring on true freshman running back Alec Ingold's 2-yard run to make it 17-13 -- with Wisconsin never trailing again. He accounted for 177 total yards, 81 of those rushing.
Erickson now has 52 receptions on the season. The school record for catches in a season? Another former walk-on, Jared Abbrederis with 78.
3. Dare Ogunbowale as a receiving threat. He may have gained only 42 yards rushing on 16 carries, but the former walk-on and converted cornerback showed he can continue to be reliable in the passing game catching five passes for 63 yards, including a 35-yard reception from Stave on Wisconsin's first scoring drive in the first quarter.
Ogunbowale is now third on the team in receptions in 2015 with 25.
4. Third-down conversions. Nine-of-16 on the afternoon isn't too shabby, especially without some main contributors for all or part of the game.
1. Turnovers took points off the board.
It was Houston's first meaningful game action, but two costly interceptions halted possible points for the Badgers.
The first interception by Illinois defensive back Eaton Spence in the end zone stopped a 10-play, 63-yard drive at the end of the first half. Houston wasn't helped by junior wide receiver Robert Wheelwright's drop the play immediately before, as the quarterback placed the ball where a catch should have been made. That derailed what would have been a 17-6 lead heading into halftime.
The second pick is all on Houston, as a bad judgment throw -- though redshirt senior Tanner McEvoy signaled for the ball, Clayton Fejedelem lept and made the play. It ultimately didn't hurt UW, but erased another opportunity for Wisconsin to put the proverbial dagger to close out the game (writer's note: do I have to pay Green Bay Packers' radio voice Wayne Larrivee every time we say that?).
2. Pressure early in the game. The first two offensive series were as bad a set of drives for the offensive line as seen in recent memory. Credit Illinois for starting off hot with several pressures and the sacks on both Stave and Houston.
Wisconsin's line recovered nicely, however, and along with some adjusted playcalling by head coach Paul Chryst with moving the pocket, the Badgers recovered nicely.
Junior running back Corey Clement's been out since the Alabama game, and though he's been practicing the past couple of weeks, he didn't make the trip to Champaign. Neither did redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal, so UW relied upon Ogunbowale and Ingold.
Redshirt senior Austin Traylor is still out at least a few more weeks, but redshirt sophomore Troy Fumagalli stepped up nicely with five receptions for 52 yards on Saturday.
But three other injuries to Stave, Wheelwright (left leg), and then junior center Dan Voltz (right leg) developed through the game against Illinois and could have further hampered an already hamstrung offense. Wheelwright's and Voltz' injuries came on the go-ahead scoring drive in the third quarter. The Badgers fought through, however, and still put up 419 yards in the win.