CHAMPAIGN - Illinois defenders admit they knew little to nothing about Wisconsin junior backup quarterback Bart Houston before Saturday's game.
After Houston's performance in the Badgers 24-13 win at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, the Illini certainly know he can play a little bit.
"I don't even know his name to be honest, but the second string quarterback did a great job of finding the weaknesses in the coverage," Illini senior safety Clayton Fejedelem said. "Our front line and linebackers did a great job in stopping the run. They did a good job of just executing."
Houston (22-for-33, 232 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) relieved starter Joel Stave, who suffered a head injury in the first quarter, and led the Badgers (6-2, 2-1 Big Ten) -- who were without starting running back Corey Clement and tight end Austin Taylor due to injury -- to their third straight win, one that keeps them within striking distance of West Division leader Iowa (7-0, 3-0).
"We didn't know exactly what the kid brought to the table, but once you got a feel for it we knew they were going to roll him out and do some boots, things of that nature," Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "We made some adjustments, got into a nine technique (at defensive end) and took some things away. But we didn't know until we saw it so we made some adjustments."
Houston wasn't perfect. He threw two red-zone interceptions in the second half. But he also showed poise after Illinois took a 13-10 lead with 7:48 left in the third quarter on Ke'Shawn Vaughn's 36-yard touchdown run.
The Badgers answered with Houston leading consecutive scoring drives, which ate up a combined 11 minutes of clock. Wisconsin won time of possession 40:09 to 19:51.
Banks said the team ran mostly man-to-man in the first half but switched to zone for most of the second half after Houston had success against the Illini corners. But that didn't slow Houston either.
Houston's favorite target was receiver Alex Erickson (10 catches for 96 yards and four rushes for 81 yards), who continually found soft spots in the Illinois zone, while the Illini defensive line, which sacked Stave twice in the first quarter, only brought down Houston once during the final three quarters.
"Like I tell guys all the time, it's a combination of things," Banks said. "We got to do a better job of pressuring the quarterback and speeding the clock up. We got to do a better job of covering guys. We got to do a better job with the linebackers. Any time you see one group having success, it's usually the direct indication that everybody else is doing their job."
Added senior linebacker Mason Monheim: "A lot of plays where they just beat him one on one. It's a game of inches. There were a lot of plays where we were there to make a play on it and some of them we weren't. We just got to make a play."
Monheim and the Illini upperclassmen are experts on adversity. Losing two in a row to Iowa and Wisconsin wouldn't seem to compare to a 20-game Big Ten losing streak nor your head coach getting fired a week before the season opener.
"We handle it like champs," Monhiem said. "We take it on the chin, but we keep going. It definitely doesn't define who we are and we certainly know that. As a leader and the other guys, we're not going to let each other slip. We'll be fine. Obviously it hurts now, and we never wanted to lose three games at this point but, hey, we go on to next week."
The loss all but guarantees the Illini will not win the West Division because due to tiebreakers, Iowa essentially has a three-game lead on Illinois with five games remaining on a favorable schedule and Wisconsin now has a two-game lead on Illinois.
"It's tough," said senior guard Ted Karras, who has continually publicized the Illini's goal of making the Big Ten Championship Game. "Absolutely that's still our goal. It's just out of our hands a little bit. We just got to go out and win ball games. The only way to get there now is to win out and just hope everyone picks each other off."
That's unlikely. But other Illini goals (seven to eight wins) are still in play, heading into a tough road game at Penn State (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) on Saturday. The Illini had chances to win the last two games against tough opponents -- an improvement from the previous three seasons.
"I think we're going to be fine," Karras said. "We got a long season. We got five games left. I've got five games left as an Illini, hopefully six. We're going to go out swinging. We're going to fight every week, and I think we've proven that the way we fight. It just didn't go our way again."
A new Day
Caleb Day has moved around a couple times during his Illini career, from safety to cornerback back to safety. But Day no longer is simply a defensive player.
Day had two catches for 18 yards in Saturday's game on passes out of the backfield. Illini interim coach Bill Cubit moved Day, a four-star "athlete" recruit out of Hillard, Ohio, to offense to try and help an injury-plagued, playmaker-needy offense to find a spark. Cubit said Day's unfamiliarity with the offense and how to attack different coverages limits the number of plays he can use Day.
Despite his raw ability, Day has struggled to crack the safety rotation. JeVaris Little relieved Fejedelem for a few plays in the second half. So Day is happy to get on the field any way he can.
"I like it," Day said. "I played offense in high school. I played both ways in terms of defense, offense and special teams. I'm getting used to it."
Day said he spent about 60 percent of last week's practice on offense and 40 percent on offense. Day also is one of the Illini's top special teams playmakers.
"It's really getting me in shape," Day said. "It's getting my brain going as far as signals and plays, but I feel like I can hang with it."