Illinois took a quick 14-0 lead and led 17-7 at the half despite giving Wisconsin a gift possession on the Illini 2 yard line that led to their only score. But turnovers marred second half play, allowing the heavily favored Badgers to score three TDs and put the game away. Illini coach Ron Zook lamented the second half turnaround.
"A tale of two teams out there, a tale of two halves. I told them at halftime we've got to continue to play the same way. But as soon as we turned the ball over, it seemed like we began to think and get back in the old mold."
Zook was referring to a behavioral pattern common to Illinois teams the past 20 years as losing seasons piled on losing seasons. Illini confidence is fragile. When things go badly, players begin to doubt themselves and their ability to win games. Zook saw that again second half when a fumble and two interceptions gave UW great field position.
Since he arrived on the scene 7 years ago, Zook's motto has been "Believe." He is still trying to instill that concept.
"When Darius Millines fumbled second half, that's when the look in their eyes said they began to think. That's what we've got to get away from. Things are gonna happen; you have to go play. We've got to coach confidence into them and get them playing like they did in the first half. When bad things start happening, you've got to put it out of your mind and go on to the next play.,P>"Wisconsin is a good football team; everybody knows that. But the thing is, we can be a good football team if we play like we did the first half. That's the frustrating thing. Somewhere along the line, we disconnect when something bad happens. That's something you can't do, and it's something I thought we got better at last year and in the off season."
The Fighting Illini lived up to their name first half. Playing on emotion from several factors including Senior Day, the loss of senior leader Trulon Henry to a traumatic injury, the desire to reverse a losing streak and concerns for their coaches on the hot seat, the Illini took the battle to the Badgers.
"To be honest with you, we were real fired up," Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase stated. "There was a lot of reasons. The seniors, Trulon. Coach Zook said some great things to us throughout the week, and last night into this morning.
"We were playing inspired football, and that's something we've got to hold onto throughout the game and keep executing. That spirit we came out with made a big difference in how we played. Our coaches really got us going in my mind."
Senior defensive back Tavon Wilson wore the #9 jersey in honor of Henry, his close friend.
"I know it meant a lot to him. He obviously couldn't come out with us today. I just wanted to do something for him to lift his spirits up, and for his daughter. She recognizes the #9 jersey while we're on the field. I just wanted her to think her dad was out there for his last game."
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, desirous of reversing the offensive slump from the past four games, called the game from the sideline instead of the press box. He says the players responded to his fiery nature.
"We came out and played with great spirit. That's something we talked about all week. We wanted to come out and fight like warriors and play with passion. I thought they did that. We played real well in the first half and should have had another touchdown. And then in the second half we hurt ourselves.
"I do think it helped. I thought they came out and played with fire and energy. We played with fire the second half, we just made stupid mistakes."
Petrino hungers to win every game. He had special reason Saturday. He was asked how much wanting to win for Coach Zook motivated him.
"A lot, with everything in our power. We want to go win the next one for him. I want to win every game there is, first for the team, always for my boss and for myself. It makes you mad because we should have won that game. We had every opportunity. We dominated the first half."
Illini coaches knew they needed to make changes, especially on offense. The Illini used a quicker tempo and spread the ball around to more playmakers. And they alternated quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole.
"I said we needed to make changes," Zook reminded. "I'm not saying it had anything to do with Nathan. We just had to do some things differently. I'm not necessarily a proponent of change for the sake of change. But in a situation like that, you have to try something.
"I thought we did much better on offense spreading the ball around. We wanted to involve more receivers, get more receivers on the edge, use more running backs. Jon Davis had a big game and did some really nice things."
Petrino fumed about the lost possibilities in the second half.
"First third down is a first down, and Darius fumbles it. He might have been down, but they called it a fumble. Then we call a post, the guy is wide open and we throw a pick. Then we have a curl, they side up and you have to go to the other side. You can't make those mistakes.
"Then we had another third down with a guy wide open, and we don't hit him. You've got to make the plays on third down. That's how you beat good teams. We did it the first half; we didn't get it done second half."
Scheelhaase was 15 for 19 passing for 99 yards and ran for 28 more. O'Toole was 7 of 12 for 53 yards and ran the ball twice for 8 yards. However, Scheelhaase threw an interception and O'Toole was guilty of two. All three either stopped promising drives or gave the Badgers tremendous field position.
The first O'Toole miscue could have been a TD. A.J. Jenkins ran a post route and had beaten his man badly. But O'Toole, likely wanting to guarantee accuracy, short-armed the pass into a strong wind, allowing Antonio Fenelus to catch up.
"The one that sticks out in my mind was the first one," O'Toole remembered. "It could have been a touchdown if I just put it out there. He's a fast dude.
"I had protection; I didn't really step into it. I thought I put it out there, but then I see a guy cuts in. I don't think it was a bad spiral, but I should have put it out there. He was wide open. If I had laid it out there, he would have scored a touchdown."
Using a hurry-up mode, the Illini started their first possession at their own 15 yard line and moved the ball upfield. They had to punt after three first downs, but they showed a spark missing the past few games.
They completed the job when they got the ball back. With Scheelhaase hitting five different receivers, the Illini drove 51 yards in 11 plays. Freshman running back Donovonn Young, who led Illini rushers with 43 yards in 8 carries, found an opening on the outside, broke a tackle and rambled the final 12 yards to paydirt.
Whitney Mercilus, leading the nation in sacks, caught UW quarterback Russell Wilson behind the line and forced his 8th fumble of the season. Jonathan Brown, second on the team with 10 tackles including four for losses, recovered and returned 28 yards to the Wisconsin 36.
Young ran 22 yards, O'Toole hit Davis and Millines for short gains, and Troy Pollard burst 15 yards to the UW four yard line. Young scored from the one to give the Illini a 14-0 lead.
Punter Justin DuVernois muffed a good snap trying to punt from near his own goal line on the Illini's next possession, giving the ball to the Badgers at the two. Montee Ball scored the first of his three TDs to narrow the deficit.
Beginning at their own 20 yard line, the Illini continued to attack. Pollard and Ford each had big runs during the possession, and O'Toole hit five short passes. He hit Jenkins for what would have been a TD, but it was called back by offensive pass interference on a pick play. A second pick was called three plays later to prevent another completion. Undaunted, Derek Dimke kicked a 41 yard field goal against the wind to end the half.
Petrino had to watch his tongue when asked about the two interference calls.
"It's a joke. I'll get fined, so I can't say anything. Those people should have to look my little kids in the eye and tell them."
All this time, the Illini defense came to play as well. Illinois outgained Wisconsin for the game 301 to 285. The Badgers had only 93 yards at the half. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning had every reason to be happy about the effort.
"I'm proud of how hard they played. That was a group that was averaging almost 500 yards and 47 points after ten games. Pretty good players. I think we held our own."
But the defense was on the field most of the third quarter, and it began to take its toll. The Millines fumble on the first possession of the second half gave UW the ball on the Illini 30 yard line. It took 13 plays for the Badgers to finally score, and they had to convert two 4th and 1 plays to keep their drive going. Ball caught a Wilson pass for the five yard score, but the Illini defense gave up yardage reluctantly.
"I know that one drive, they had to go twice on fourth," Koenning remembered. "They ended up scoring on third and 5 on a play...I thought you couldn't crack back a guy and throw the ball to his guy unless it was in the backfield. We'll have to watch it on film."
The first O'Toole interception and a 60 yard wind-aided punt that returner Terry Hawthorne misjudged and allowed to sail over his head put Illinois at their three yard line. After a three-and-out and 37 yard punt into the wind, the Badgers sprung Ball loose for a 34 yard gain to the one. Wilson scored from there to give them a lead they would not relinquish.
The next O'Toole interception gave UW the ball 39 yards from paydirt. Ball ran the last 17 yards to complete the scoring on the day. But even then, it appeared the Illini might make a comeback similar to the Northwestern game.
Taking over on their own 21 yard line, the Illini moved to the Badger 19 in 11 plays. Scheelhaase hit Davis, leading receiver on the day with 5 catches for 53 yards, and he sped 18 yards. Scheelhaase had a 17 yard run on the drive. But on second and ten, he misread a coverage and threw the ball to UW's Shelton Johnson. The Badgers were able to run out the clock from there.
The Illini defense gave up 224 yards to Ball in 38 carries, 166 in the second half. Koenning was dealing with two problems. Besides Henry, safety Steve Hull was also not dressed. It forced Ashante Williams and Pat Nixon-Youman into extensive duty, and Tavon Wilson played safety instead of his usual cornerback. Also, with the offense being unable to sustain drives second half, the defense was on the field a long time.
"Anytime you replace guys because of injury, there's a reason why those other guys were there. I'm not saying our substitute guys didn't do a good job; they did the best job they could. I'm very happy and proud that they stepped up and tried to play.
"We had a couple guys that kind of gave in to it, that finally got beat down and didn't keep pressing, but it wasn't those guys. We've got to get to the point where we can substitute some guys."
Tavon Wilson agrees the Illini need to play two halves.
"It's frustrating. All year we've been playing great the second half. This week we came out and played great the first half, but we didn't play as good the second half as we should have. Things happen. We've got to go back to the drawing board on Monday and continue to fight. Try to get a win at Minnesota."
Davis agrees about the Jekyll-Hyde nature of the team.
"We had a lot of energy going the first half. Second half started off kind of rough with the fumble and bad field position. We just weren't clicking in the second half. We're not giving up. We've got to finish the season strong."
Former Illini Mikel Leshoure, Martez Wilson and Eddie McGee were among those who returned to campus to support Illini players and coaches. Adversity allows the cream to rise to the top; it is obvious this team is still a family working to help each other for a common cause. Unfortunately, Whitney Mercilus reminds each loss hurts badly.
"I think the Penn State loss was a little tougher because of how close it was. This one is just as tough as the last four games we lost. It's emotionally taxing. We've got to keep moving forward."
He says any letdown by the Illini in their season finale at Minnesota is unacceptable.
"You can't go out the season like a punk, basically. You've still got a chance to making it a winning record instead of being a team that went 6-0 and then 0-6. We don't want to experience this again, especially against Minnesota. Last year we took them lightly. This year we can't."
Zook, his staff and players are fighters. Their highest goals are unreachable, but a win next week would improve on last season and give them a better bowl opportunity. Somehow, someway, the Illini need to remember all the good from this week and stay confident for four quarters at Minnesota." ""We've got to stick together," Zook states emphatically. "We have one game to go. We've got to do everything we can do to play two halves like we're capable of playing. We've got to play with the same attitude, the same intensity for two halves. When bad things happen, you can't worry about it. We're gonna find out what we're made of next week."