MADISON — The No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers took care of business on homecoming weekend, upending the Illinois Fighting Illini 49–20 at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.
The offense ran for 357 yards and tallied 545 total against a not-so-great Illini defense, but it also committed two key turnovers.
Defensively, Jim Leonhard’s unit responded after the loss to Michigan with five big takeaways that squashed Illinois’s offense in the first half and helped lead to 21 points.
With a defensive backfield not at full strength, some first-year Badgers stepping up, and some thoughts on Alex Hornibrook’s throws, here’s what I learned from today’s win:
The secondary stepped up once again despite injuries
Illinois was not going to beat Wisconsin through the air, as it came in averaging only 155.3 passing yards per game. However, with a depleted secondary missing three of its top four safeties, the unit stepped up huge.
The key name here is redshirt senior walk-on Evan Bondoc, who filled in at safety with D’Cota Dixon, Scott Nelson, and Reggie Pearson all out. He went on to tally five tackles (three solo), 1.5 tackles for loss, an interception, and a forced fumble. The legacy of walk-ons filling in at Wisconsin is nearly cliché—and yes, I wrote a book about that—but the Madison native again showed that those who came to UW without a scholarship can be part of the glue that holds the team together, and not only that, but excel when called upon.
Like Bondoc, redshirt sophomore safety Eric Burrell recorded five tackles on the afternoon and also made what inside linebacker Ryan Connelly called an “effort play” on his forced fumble that was recovered by true freshman Rachad Wildgoose.
Speaking of Wildgoose, he has solidified himself as a key presence in the defensive backfield, and I am probably on the bandwagon for the true freshman from Miami based on some solid performances of late.
You obviously want your top secondary members healthy, but you have to applaud the players available for stepping up—and also the ability of Jim Leonhard and his staff in coaching them up.
Young Badgers continue to earn reps and make plays
Several true freshmen stepped up on Saturday on a team that has needed some of that young talent to step up.
Offensively, it showed up in a huge way with wide receiver Aron Cruickshank recording his first career touchdown on a 23-yard run in the first quarter to put Wisconsin up 14–0.
ARON CRUICKSHANK TO THE HOUSE! #OnWisconsin— FOX Sports Wisconsin (@fswisconsin) October 20, 2018
Live on @FS1. pic.twitter.com/nqmPvv5OlR
On the defensive side of the ball is maybe where you saw the most impact. Wildgoose started his second career game, registering two tackles, a pass break-up, and a fumble recovery. Inside linebacker Jack Sanborn tallied four tackles and a key forced fumble in the first half that nullified an Illinois scoring opportunity.
Bryson Williams stepped in for an injured Olive Sagapolu at nose tackle with two tackles, and cornerback Alexander Smith even recorded a pass break-up and tackle as well later in the game.
By my count, six true freshmen played on Saturday, and with the new redshirt rule, we will see who continues to play. At the very least, it appears Cruickshank, Wildgoose, Sanborn, and Williams are consistent contributors this season—as well as Pearson and potentially Travian Blaylock (for special teams) when they’re healthy—and will need to continue to make plays for this team.
Hornibrook’s interceptions often are more complicated than just a bad throw
Though those picks looked bad, there often is more to the story than just the southpaw overthrowing a pass that makes fans and media scratch their heads—and agreeably, a couple of throws on Saturday made you think, “What was that?” I rewatched the two interceptions by Hornibrook after the game, as well as a couple of the other throws he made that did not appear to go as planned, and they often come down to miscommunication or misreading coverages.
At least one of the interceptions was noted by Hornibrook—who finished the day 13-of-22 for 188 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions—after the game as the quarterback seeing one thing and the receiver seeing another.
Those turnovers are costly and led to 10 Illinois points. Hornibrook absolutely needs to be in sync with his receiving targets when reading coverages and running routes. There was also the third-down opportunity where Hornibrook overshot wide receiver Danny Davis, who had his man beat to the outside for a would-be touchdown. Again, though, it comes down to what both quarterback and wide receiver see, and they need to be on the correct page.
Bonus lesson: Wisconsin loves its fullback, and so should you.
Alec Ingold scored two more touchdowns on Saturday, one on a one-yard run in the first quarter and another on his 19-yard reception later in the second half. Also reeling in a 29-yard reception, the Green Bay native has a versatility that has been seen by other fullbacks under Paul Chryst’s offense.
And to think, he was initially going to Northern Illinois before Wisconsin offered him late for the class of 2015.
This stat still is so fascinating to me:
For @AI_XLV, that's 19 total touchdowns on 103 career touches. Pretty, pretty, pretty good....— Brian Mason (@Brian_Mason) October 20, 2018