CHAMPAIGN — The all orange, “traffic cone” uniforms Illinois pulled out for its first conference home game did nothing to slow down the ferocious Wisconsin offense. The Badgers’ rushing game did not yield on Saturday, piling up 289 yards and six touchdowns in a 56-32 win on the road.
For Illini head coach Tim Beckman, the strength of Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) on both sides of the ball was not unexpected.
“They’re a very good football team, one we weren’t able to get after tonight,” he said.
The Illini (3-3, 0-2) were able to muster some good plays on Saturday, with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase passing for 249 yards, but their efforts never reached the quality of their opponent.
Illinois might have had something on the opening drive of the game, but a low block penalty on Ted Karras wiped out positive yardage and stopped the hosts cold. While the Illini struggled, the Badgers quickly found room to work at Memorial Stadium.
“When you’re playing a team like Wisconsin you have to play all four quarters. We’ve struggled ... coming out in the first quarter and doing what we need to do to stay in the football game,” Beckman said.
On the third play of the first Wisconsin drive Joel Stave hit Jared Abbrederis for 17 yards, which Melvin Gordon followed with a 28-yard end-around. James White then finished the drive on the next play with a two-yard touchdown. The touchdown was followed by the Wisconsin defense forcing a quick three-and-out, allowing Gordon to continue to batter the Illini defense. The sophomore accounted for 38 of 62 yards on the second drive, including a 26-yard touchdown run to put Wisconsin ahead 14-0 with six minutes left in the first quarter.
Aaron Bailey took the first snap of the ensuing drive for Illinois and pitched to Scheelhaase, who had lined up as a receiver. The pitch hit the first-string quarterback awkwardly and the ball bounced away from Scheelhaase into the arms of Badgers’ defensive end Ethan Hemer at the Illinois 8-yard line. Stave took advantage of the excellent field position, cracking the end zone with a two-yard pass to Brian Wozniak on third down exactly one minute after Gordon’s first touchdown.
After three-and-outs from both teams, Bailey lined up under center again and quickly drove Illinois to its first first down of the game with a 12-yard rush. Scheelhaase continued to move the ball with a pair of positive rushing attempts and completions to Steve Hull and Miles Osei as the clock ran out on the first quarter.
Switching directions sapped a little of the energy from the Illinois drive, and the hosts would have to settle for a 31-yard field goal from Taylor Zalewski for their first points of the game.
Illinois’ defense came up with its second consecutive stop on the next drive, again forcing a three-and-out from the Badgers. Osei returned the punt to the Illinois 43, allowing Scheelhaase to go over the top to find Hull for a 51-yard completion down to the Wisconsin six.
The big completion flustered Wisconsin, and it was flagged for 12 men on the field, moving the Illini even closer to paydirt. Three plays later, Josh Ferguson had the first touchdown of the game for Illinois, cracking the goal line from a yard out to make it 21-10 with 6:38 to go in the first half.
The Wisconsin offense responded after the Illini touchdown, with Gordon and White eating up yards before Stave and Abbrederis connected to reach the red zone. The Badgers were backed up by a penalty, but Stave worked out of the jam, hitting Jacob Pederson for a 29-yard gain and then handing off to Gordon for a one-yard touchdown.
Illinois refused to play for the whistle with just two minutes left until half time, though. Scheelhaase completed three straight passes, including a 39-yard strike to Ryan Lankford to bring Illinois to the Wisconsin four-yard line. Bailey entered the game again on second and goal and threw his first touchdown for the Illini, a one-yard pass to Matt LaCosse with 45 seconds left in the half.
After being outscored 21-0 in the first quarter, the Illini outscored the Badgers 17-7 in the second quarter. With that in mind, heading to the lockers trailing 28-17 was not such a bad place to be.
“Right before half we scored and I was thinking, ‘OK, we’ve got something going,’” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “Then they took the wind in the third quarter and negated some of that.”
On the first possession of the second half, White and Gordon got the Badgers going again. The running back tandem accounted for 70 of 75 yards on the drive, with White scoring on a three-yard pass for the first points of the half.
After a three-and-out from the Illini, the Wisconsin backs were at it again. On their second drive of the second half, White and Gordon churned up 44 of 56 yards, capped by a 13-yard touchdown run from Gordon. The touchdown put Wisconsin in front 42-17 with six minutes to go in the third quarter.
Containing the backs was a tremendous challenge for the Illini defense, and linebacker Jonathan Brown owned up to the fact that his unit did not rise to the challenge as best they could have.
“Today we just came out, and they executed better than us. That’s what it was, no excuses. They played ball we didn’t,” the senior said.
Wisconsin penalties helped the Illini on the ensuing drive, giving the team fresh starts in key situations. Scheelhaase took advantage of those miscues and marshaled his team to the three-yard line with a 29-yard completion to LaCosse. The drive stalled out on the goal line, however, and Illinois turned the ball over on downs after Bailey could not score from one yard out.
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After holding the Badgers deep in their own territory and forcing a punt, Scheelhaase made up for Illinois’ failure on the previous drive. He ran for 19 yards, hit Martize Barr with a 15-yard pass and ran in for a one-yard touchdown to get Illinois on the board in the second half. The Illini successfully ran a fake field goal after the run, with holder Tim Russell completing a pass to Jon Davis to make it 42-25.
Kenzel Doe returned the ensuing kick 54 yards to set up the Wisconsin drive inside Illini territory. From there Stave made no mistakes and drove his team to the end zone in six plays. White scored his second from one yard out to cap the drive.
Illinois turned the ball over again on the ensuing possession, with Donovonn Young coughing up the ball. The Badgers turned to Corey Clement after the fumble, resting their hard-working backs with the game out of reach. Clement punched in a five-yard touchdown for the sixth Wisconsin rushing touchdown.
The hosts showed resilience, though, and with Reilly O’Toole under center the Illini marched 78 yards to score on a 29-yard pass to Spencer Harris. Harris’s touchdown, coming with 1:36 left, would be the final score of the game.
Illinois are at home again next week for Homecoming, when they will take on Michigan State (6-1, 3-0). Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.