It was a "perfect storm" of sorts. Wisconsin had lost three straight highly emotional games to top schools before collapsing last week at Iowa. They had nowhere to go but up, and their pride wouldn't let them lose again. Meanwhile, Illinois was riding high after an offensive explosing against Indiana, making them vulnerable this week.
Wisconsin earned the win, but Illinois aided their cause with interceptions, penalties, missed tackles and other mistakes at critical times. Head coach Ron Zook was frustrated with the play of his team.
"It's the same thing we always say, you can't turn the ball over or give up big plays. We had a great week of practice. We told them all along that we're not good enough to just go play. I felt like mentally we were ready to go."
From the start, this game reminded of the Minnesota debacle at Illinois' Homecoming two weeks ago. Field position played a major role, and Wisconsin had the advantage most of the day. Each time it seemed the Illini might be able to take charge, something would go wrong and the momentum would stay with the Badgers.
Zook knew the Illini didn't show the necessary poise, but he also realized the Badgers did what they needed to win.
"You can't turn the ball over. Penalties, turnovers, big plays, you're not gonna beat a good football team when you do that. Our hat's off to Wisconsin, they did a good job. We didn't capitalize on the opportunities we had.
Illinois' defense played well for the most part, stuffing the Wisconsin ground game most of the day. Starting tailback John Clay gained only 88 yards in 25 tough carries, thanks in large part to dynamo Brit Miller, who led the defensive charge for the Illini with 16 tackles, a sack and three pass breakups.
However, UW quarterback Dustin Sherer managed the Badger attack effectively in his second career start, completing 12 of 21 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns while frequently under duress. He also added two back-breaking runs to the cause, netting 15 yards to score Wisconsin's first touchdown after scrambling from a Martez Wilson blitz and breaking outside contain. And his 30 big yards on a naked bootleg helped seal the deal late in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Illinois' Juice Williams struggled all day. With talk centering on his recent record-breaking performances, Juice threw three interceptions and couldn't produce the consistency to counter Wisconsin's defense. Using a formula Iowa will undoubtedly use next week, UW loaded the box to stuff Illinois' run game and prevented long pass plays. Juice and his receivers were too inconsistent to move the chains with shorter pass routes.
Williams completed 17 of 32 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. But his three interceptions negated much of that. And the Badgers stifled his running, allowing him only 4 net yards on the ground. Jason Ford was the Illini's leading ground gainer with 47 yards in 12 carries, and Daniel Dufrene added 30 yards. A. J. Jenkins netted 61 yards on three receptions. Fred Sykes and Will Judson also had three grabs on the day.
A big part of the problem was penalties. Tackles Xavier Fulton and Jeff Allen shared five penalties, some due to respect for Wisconsin's talented defensive ends. Whenever the Illini started to drive, penalties or other mistakes would give them third and long situations. They could never get into a rhythm except on their third possession, when they drove 92 yards to generate a 7-3 lead.
That touchdown came on the first play of the second quarter. Facing second and goal from the two, Juice found freshman walkon fullback Zach Becher for his first Illini score. The big plays of the drive were Juice passes of 23 yards to Jeff Cumberland, 37 yards to Arrelious Benn, and to Jason Ford for 12 yards. Benn caught only two passes on the day, his consecutive streak of 100 yard games ending at four.
After two possession exchanges, the Illini couldn't dig themselves out of poor field position and gave the ball back to Wisconsin on the Illinois 44 yard line. A controversial reception by Isaac Anderson continued their drive, slow motion replay appearing to show the ball hitting the ground. But Illinois can't blame the loss on a bad call. The Badgers had the answers when needed, and Sherer put them back up with his 15 yard run.
Benn broke free on the ensuing kickoff, rumbling all the way to the Badger 28. But two straight penalties forced Illinois to settle for a 47 yard Matt Eller field goal into a strong wind. The half ended tied 10-10.
Illini fans were encouraged by how their team came out strongly to start the second half. They marched 70 yards in 9 plays, with a Juice pass to the freshman Jenkins producing the score from 14 yards out. Jenkins also added a big 27 yard reception on the drive.
However, Illini momentum was short-lived. The Badgers took the ensuing kickoff and drove 80 impressive yards to tie the game again. Illinois needed some stops to take over the game, but they couldn't. Sherer found receiver David Gilreath wide open over the middle on 3rd and 17, and he broke a couple meek tackles to score from 49 yards out.
The third quarter ended tied at 17-17, but the fourth quarter belonged to UW. On the first play of the final stanza, Juice's high pass was tipped off Sykes' outstretched hand into the arms of Badger defensive back Niles Brinkley, who's long return gave them excellent field position at the Illinois 37. The Illini defense held, but Philip Welch drilled his second field goal to produce the winning points.
Illinois couldn't generate a drive, so Wisconsin got the ball back on their own 20. The Badgers then put icing on their cake by driving 80 yards for the final score. The big play was a 45 yard pass and run from Sherer to tight end Garrett Graham, who was open all day. Gilreath caught his second touchdown pass from 8 yards.
In games between teams of similar ability, whomever makes the fewer mistakes and creates big plays when needed usually wins.
"It goes back to we've got to make big plays," Zook reminded. "They did, and that's why they won the game. I felt the first part of the game we were controlling it, getting to the quarterback and stopping the run, something they do best. But we didn't play 60 minutes."
Illinois are now at a crossroads. Once a seeming lock for a bowl bid, a 4-4 team can go either way from here. All four remaining opponents have winning records, so Illinois will be hard-pressed to finish 8-4. If they give up on themselves, they could collapse and end up 4-8. Coach Zook is determined to finish strong, for his fans as well as his team.
"I apologize to the Illlini Nation because we didn't come to play. That's our job. We're going back to work on Monday."