MADISON — The schedule, at long last, gave the Wisconsin Badgers a chance to breathe facing Illinois on Saturday at Camp Randall. Instead of relaxing, the Badgers kept their foot on the gas pedal.
Led by 363 rushing yards as a team and four first-half defensive interceptions, No. 7 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-2) had no issues in a 48-3 rout of the Fighting Illini (3-7, 2-5).
Now, with just two games remaining on the schedule—at Purdue and versus Minnesota—the Badgers find themselves controlling their own destiny to reach not only the Big Ten Championship, but also the College Football Playoff.
“It was a good team win, and it didn’t just happen,” Badgers head coach Paul Chryst said. “It was a good week of preparation. Wanted the kids to enjoy it tonight, and we’ve got to push the reset button and have another good week.”
While the highly-touted Badgers defense intercepted Illini quarterback Jeff George Jr. four times in the first half, the offense broke out for four or more touchdowns for the first time since Sept. 10 against Akron—and did so in the first 18 minutes of the game.
On the flip side, the Wisconsin defense did not allow a third-down conversion for the first time since 1998 and the offense scored on eight of its 12 drives.
Deftly put, it was the type of all-around performance the Badgers were waiting for. It was also the dominating one they desired.
“When we play the University of Illinois, this is the expectation that we have,” linebacker Vince Biegel said. “And that's no disrespect to them, but that's the expectation we have coming into these games. It was finally nice for us to click on offense, click on defense and put up a good performance today.”
The plan of attack was clear against an Illini defense that came into Saturday allowing 191.1 rush yards per game. Led by running back Corey Clement’s 123 yards and three touchdowns and running back Dare Ogunbowale’s explosive 107 yards on just seven carries, the Badgers powered their way to victory with the most rush yards in the Chryst era.
“Who wouldn't want these types of games where you can close out a game and not have to worry about running a two-minute offense to try to get a quick score,” Clement said. “It gives us some breathing room and more confidence as we close out the regular season."
Safety Leo Musso had two interceptions while safety D’Cota Dixon and linebacker Ryan Connelly each picked off one George Jr. pass in the first half.
“It brings our team a lot of momentum,” Musso said of the four turnovers. “Not just the defense, but the offense as well, and special teams. Any time you can win the turnover margin, it’s huge.”
Wisconsin’s offense scored 17 points off those turnovers, which is more than enough on most Saturdays for the Badgers given their defense—and especially on this one. While allowing a season-low 200 yards of offense, Wisconsin’s defense lowered its average to 12.7 points per game against this season.
“It’s funny, there’s different guys and a number of guys that just come up and make a play,” Chryst said. “That’s what’s fun to watch about our defense. There’s a number of different guys, not just contributing but making key plays in key moments.”
Wisconsin faced four teams ranked in the Top 10 over its first six Big Ten games in addition to playing then-No. 5 LSU in the season opener. The other two conference games in that stretch were no cupcakes either, as the Badgers picked up wins at Iowa and Northwestern. Presented with a contest they could control from start-to-finish, the Badgers did just that—and in convincing fashion.
Led by the even-keeled Chryst, don’t expect the Badgers to now look ahead to any potential match ups against more highly-ranked teams.
“A good thing about us is, whatever game it is, however big time, however you want to publicize it, we do a really good job in focusing on the moment,” Dixon said. “We don't think about any championship. Every game is the championship. It's really satisfying to know you have brothers that think the same way and play off of that."
Behind an overpowering offensive line and patient backs, Wisconsin set the tone by rushing for 112 yards in the first quarter while pulling out to a 21-3 lead after 15 minutes. Musso and Dixon both notched interceptions in the quarter George Jr. to set up touchdown drives.
“We knew there was a lot of opportunity to get things going on the ground in the preparation, watching the Illinois film,” Ogunbowale said. “We were able to do that. The offensive line, tight ends and wide receivers, too, did a great job blocking.”
Clement rushed for scores from two and four yards out to put the Badgers up 14-0 at 6:59 of the quarter. Illinois converted a 31-yard Chase McLaughlin field goal on the ensuing drive for its lone points of the game, but Ogunbowale broke a 48-yard run to help set up an eight-yard strike from quarterback Alex Hornibrook to receiver Jazz Peavy to give Wisconsin a 21-3 lead.
Less than three minutes into the second quarter, the Badgers took advantage of that dominant run game in a different way, perfectly executing a play-action pass from quarterback Bart Houston to tight end Kyle Penniston. All that was required was an easy flip from Houston on his lone pass of the game to the redshirt freshman to give Wisconsin a 28-3 lead.
Plagued by red zone inefficiency at times this season, the Badgers offense punched in six scores from inside the 20-yard line while settling for two field goals.
“It was guys putting it all together,” Chryst said. “And that’s what’s fun about football, is that it takes all 11. And I think they’re able to do that. There’s nothing magical about this game. It’s guys executing. I thought we did that.”
Entering halftime, Hornibrook and Houston combined for five completions. George Jr., meanwhile, completed four passes to Wisconsin defenders, marking the first time the Wisconsin defense logged four interceptions since Nov. 27, 2010 against Northwestern.
Musso tallied his second interception of the game while also earning a spot on all the highlight shows late in the second half. George Jr. went deep for receiver Malik Turner on the sideline, but cornerback Sojourn Shelton broke up the pass and then kicked the ball into the air to a properly-placed Musso.
“I’ve watched a lot of Ronaldo highlights playing FIFA,” Shelton said. “Just kicked it to my homie. I’m happy for him. He got another two picks in one night, and that’s pretty cool. Everybody was catching Christmas gifts, really, so I’m happy for everybody.”
Linebacker Ryan Connelly secured Wisconsin’s fourth interception of George Jr. with 1:15 left in the half to set up a 37-yard Andrew Endicott field goal before halftime. Endicott would add a 21-yarder in the third quarter and six extra points for a perfect performance after missing five field goals over the last three games.
Clement capped an 11-play, 70-yard drive in which the Badgers exclusively ran the ball with his third touchdown of the game at 14:18 of the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 41-3. On the next possession, Wisconsin ran the ball 11 times and passed just once as it completed a 12-play, 75-yard drive on a three-yard touchdown run by running back Bradrick Shaw.
The Badgers fittingly punctuated the night by running the ball on 29 of their last 30 plays as a helpless Illini defense could only watch the seconds run off the clock. As Clement put it, Saturday night was one of the most enjoyable ones of the season.
“We're enjoying the journey that we're on,” he said. “We call these chapters. Now, we close this chapter out and we continue to write the next one coming out to practice Monday.”
With the Illinois chapter finalized, the Badgers can now flip the page. The next two chapters: Purdue and Minnesota.
After that? Who knows.