No. 7 Wisconsin 48, Illinois 3
Illinois had to play a perfect or near-perfect game to knock off No. 7 Wisconsin. The Illini instead played their worst game of the season.
Illinois redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff George Jr. threw four first-half interceptions and Wisconsin scored 17 points off those turnovers to claim a 31-3 halftime lead en route to Wisconsin's largest margin of victory this season against a power-five opponent.
The loss is the Illini's largest to Wisconsin since a 55-7 loss in Madison in 1961 and also guarantees the Illini (3-7, 2-5 Big Ten) will finish with a losing record for the fifth straight season.
The win puts the Badgers (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) one step closer to a Big Ten West Division title and possible opportunity to crash the College Football Playoff if it wins out.
George Jr.'s interceptions -- he was benched at halftime and finished the game 5-for-16 for 79 yards and a 22.7 passer efficiency rating -- gave Wisconsin the ball in great field position: at the Illinois 8, the Illinois 43, the Wisconsin 40 and the Illinois 10.
Wes Lunt replaced George Jr. in the second half, making his return to the field after missing the last four games with a back injury suffered Oct. 8 against Purdue. Lunt finished the game 2-for-8 passing for 28 yards.
Wisconsin outgained Illinois with 455 total yards to the Illini's 200 and dominated time of possession (42:03 to 17:57). Wisconsin had 23 first downs to the Illini's 10 and ran 78 total plays to the Illini's 45.
The Badgers offense overpowered the Illini defense with two running backs topping 100 rushing yards: Corey Clement (123 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries) and Dare Odeyingbo (103 yards on seven carries). Backup Bradrick Shaw also added 80 rushing yards on 19 carries.
What it means
Wisconsin is a heck of a lot better than Michigan State. The Illini were simply overpowered and out-executed by a great Big Ten team. For Illinois to be competitive against these kind of teams, Illinois needs to recruit bigger, more physical players, more athletic players and have strength coach Joey Boese build them up into stronger, faster athletes.
Illinois aspires to be Wisconsin. The Badgers weren't always a Big Ten power, kids. In fact, the Badgers had just six winning seasons from 1964 to 1992. But they hired the right coach (Barry Alvarez) who gave the program an identity and built and built and built upon itself over the last two and a half decades. It didn't happen overnight and even after a Rose Bowl appearance in Alvarez's fourth season (1993), the Badgers had some slp-ups. But they found stability and idenity. During the last 23 years over four coaches, the Badgers have made 21 bowl games and won six Big Ten titles. Is it possible at Illinois? Maybe. But you need the right coach and a lot of patience. It's just Year One of Lovie. For context, Alvarez went 1-10 in his first season before back-to-back 5-6 seasons. By Year Four, Alvarez led the Badgers to Pasadena.
What went right
Foster continues to be a bright light in a dim season. His offensive line didn't perform that well, but he still made some plays and ran hard. He is running away with the Illini offensive MVP award (671 season rushing yards).
Lunt's return to the field is a positive for this team. Lunt is an upgrade at quarterback, especially when it comes to ball security (10 interceptions in 25 games with the Illini). He wasn't that sharp in the second half but the Illini hope he knocked off some rust and will be in a rhythm heading into next week's game against Iowa.
What went wrong
George Jr. is big-armed and mentally tough, but he's really inaccurate and made some really bad decisions on Saturday. He didn't give his receivers much of a chance on the contested throws and put the ball in harm's way far too often (Wisconsin had the chance to pick off another pass or two). Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee may have passed a little too much, but the Illini couldn't find much running room and they did have some opportunities in the passing game. George Jr. just didn't take advantage of them. If Lunt is healthy, George Jr.'s run as a starter likely will come to an end.
The Illini run defense must have really missed redshirt fershman Jamal Milan because the defensive line, especially the interior, was dominated by Wisconsin's improved, physical offensive line. Illinois had limited Michigan to 4.6 yards per carry, Minnesota to 3.6 yards per carry and Michigan State to 4.1 yards per carry. But Michigan ran for 5.7 yards per carry. The Illini young defenders had taken strides in recent weeks but most were ineffective and made mistakes against Wisconsin, which scored touchdowns on four of its first five drives.
Illinois was crushed in time of possession yet again. Three of their last four opponents (Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan) have held the ball for more than 41 minutes. Nebraska also held the ball for 38:01.
The Illini return home to play Iowa for next Saturday's home finale, though the kick time has not yet been announced yet. The Illini lost a competitive 29-20 games last season at Iowa City but have lost seven of eight to the Hawkeyes dating back to 2003 -- of course, the border rivals didn't play each other between 2009-2013. ESPN's Power Football Index gives the Illini a 27.3 percent chance to win. Despite a guaranteed losing record this season, the Illini still have a chance to make a bowl game. If they win their final two games (Iowa and at Nebraska) and there aren't enough teams 6-6 or better to fill the 80 bowl spots, then Illinois -- like Nebraska last season -- will be at the front of the line to fill a spot due to their perfect Academic Progress Rate. So there still is some intrigue left. Though if the Illini play like they did in Madison, it won't matter.