MADISON — The Wisconsin Badgers came into Saturday’s homecoming match-up having only created nine turnovers through their first six games.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard mentioned a week-and-a-half ago how there were five or six missed opportunities for interceptions against Nebraska. Facing Michigan last weekend, the defense did not record a takeaway at the Big House in a 25-point loss on the road.
On Saturday, that changed.
Wisconsin’s defense exploded with five turnovers created in the first half, leading to 21 points in the Badgers’ 49–20 win over the Illinois Fighting Illini. The sheer number of takeaways within those two quarters was impressive, but what also stood out was that players experienced and inexperienced contributed in nullifying the Illini offense while giving ample opportunities to its own.
For that matter, Illinois came into Saturday’s game fifth in the nation and best in the Big Ten with only five turnovers lost.
“I think the biggest thing was we knew they wanted to run the ball,” inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “So early on, we had to do what we could to get them in third downs to make them throw the ball. I thought we did a good job on the early downs and put them in tough spots.”
Edwards, the redshirt senior and All-American who tied for the team lead in interceptions last season, started off the turnover party on Illinois’s first offensive series. Stepping in front of an AJ Bush pass near midfield, he dashed 28 yards to the Illinois 25. Two plays later, Wisconsin’s offense took advantage of the short field as wide receiver Aron Cruickshank ran it in from 23 yards out to give the Badgers a 14–0 lead.
In the second quarter alone, Wisconsin registered four takeaways, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Illinois was driving early in that period when Bush found running back Reggie Corbin for a two-yard gain. Corbin eluded Wisconsin true freshman cornerback Rachad Wildgoose’s tackle attempt when another first-year player, inside linebacker Jack Sanborn, connected on a forced fumble that was ultimately recorded as a recovery by Chris Orr.
Sanborn has stepped up into a reserve linebacker position with injuries to redshirt sophomores Mike Maskalunas and Griffin Grady to now play in five games as a true freshman.
On the next Illini possession, a fifth-year player starting his first career game at safety thwarted another drive. As redshirt freshman defensive end Matt Henningsen hurried Bush into a throw on 3rd-and-8, the ball appeared to hang up in the air with wintry conditions enveloping the stadium.
Redshirt senior safety Evan Bondoc came up with the interception to give Wisconsin great field position at the Illinois 44.
“I got a good read on it from the post,” Bondoc said. “It kind of floated up in the air and obviously it was snowing and a little windy at that point, so it was kind of hard to read it, but just got in the position and lucky enough to make the play.”
Bondoc, a former walk-on who played in 30 games across the past three years coming into Saturday, tallied five tackles, 1.5 for loss, along with a forced fumble and that interception.
“He’s earned every bit of that,” Edwards said. “A guy who’s worked his butt off to get on any team that he can—special teams, defense—so he’s always been super reliable. So when he got his shot, I was super excited for him to see what he was doing out there and just making plays, man.
“I told him, ‘Hey, I’m going out with you tonight, man. I’m with you tonight, big dog.’”
Later in the quarter on another third down but with a different Illini quarterback in the game, the Badgers struck again. True freshman M.J. Rivers took over for Bush and Illinois closed the gap to 14–7 after an 80-yard touchdown run by Corbin.
Wisconsin went three-and-out on the ensuing series, but the defense stood its ground on the next possession. On another 3rd-and-long, Rivers tried to throw to his right when senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu tipped the pass and came down with the first interception of his career.
Edwards said that play stood out most to him among all of Wisconsin’s turnovers on the day.
“I think Olive’s is tough to miss,” Edwards said. “I told him he should have caught the first one instead of tipping it up to himself, but whenever it’s a guy like that making a play like that, it’s always fun. I mean, he doesn’t get those opportunities a lot, so when he takes advantage of them, it sparks everyone for sure.”
On Wisconsin’s next snap, quarterback Alex Hornibrook tossed a 27-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jake Ferguson to put the lead back at two touchdowns.
Illinois’s next series produced a familiar result. On a 2nd-and-8 from the Illini 32, Corbin gained three yards on a carry but once again coughed up a ball thanks to a jarring hit by safety Eric Burrell.
“[Burrell] doesn’t necessarily have to come hit him because he’s going to go down to the ground anyways,” linebacker Ryan Connelly said, “but to add that extra hit in there and pop the ball out, that’s huge.”
Wildgoose, the true freshman cornerback starting his second career game, recovered the ball and the Badgers were back in business. Hornibrook found tight end Kyle Penniston three plays later for an 11-yard touchdown pass to put Wisconsin up 28–7.
After some rough performances in the past four games, Wisconsin’s defense settled down and held Illinois to only 90 passing yards. It did allow 210 rushing yards to a team 22nd in the nation in rushing yards per game (228.8); granted, 80 of those came on the touchdown run by Corbin, a play that Edwards noted was a stretch play to the boundary.
“I wasn’t in on it but I saw it from the sideline,” he said. “They did a good job of just keeping everyone flat and cut it back. Like I said, the dude had some wheels, so he was able to find a hole and hit it. [We] just got to pursue the ball better.”
On the afternoon as a whole, the defense rebounded and asserted itself by containing the Illini offense to not just the 300 yards of offense but also 2-of-12 on third-down attempts. It generated five tackles for loss, three sacks, and four quarterback hurries.
Most importantly, those five turnovers presented an abundance of opportunities that Wisconsin’s offense took advantage of in a bounce-back win.
“I think on defense, we have to do a good job of trying to flip the field for the offense and put them in positions to where it makes them have a shorter field to go,” Edwards said. “We can’t expect them to go 90 yards every drive and score, so whenever we can do that for them, it’s kind of what we need to do.”