After riding the coattails of a high-scoring offense and a couple of Heisman candidates that continue to put up record numbers, the 11-man unit finally showed that it can win a game despite keeping the score under 35.
"We want to be a complete team and we understand a few times the defense has come up short this year," said linebacker Chris Borland. "We wanted to get back to work, stick to the plan and see it pay off."
It paid off huge for No.15 Wisconsin to avoid an upset in the making, taking advantage of four second-half turnovers to shake out of its first half fog to outscore the Illini 21-0 in the second half to earn a 28-17 victory at Memorial Stadium.
Combined with another standout performance by running back Montee Ball (224 yards, two touchdowns) and winning at Illinois for the first time since 2005, Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) can clinch the Leaders Division championship and advance to the inaugural Big Ten championship against Michigan State Dec.3 in Indianapolis be beating Penn State next week at Camp Randall.
"As a defense, when you need to make turnovers and you get them, that's way more impressive than blowing somebody out," said senior safety Aaron Henry, one of the three members of UW's secondary to register an interception. "We got a lot of criticism for not being able to win on the road … and not being able to finish. Guys just stepped up."
As time progressed, upperclassmen on Wisconsin's roster said the gut-wrenching experiences in late October made the unit stronger, more cohesive and better prepared to handle a four-quarter game should the situation arise.
Consider then that at least some positive came out of losing on a Hail Mary and a defensive breakdown in back-to-back weeks. Wisconsin trailed at halftime for just the second time this season and the message, as far as what coach Bret Bielema heard in the locker room, was clear and concise from his defensive players.
It was their turn to pick up an offense that came in averaging 46.5 points per game, but was held to just seven points in the first 30 minutes.
"I told them at halftime this is one of the greatest memories you'll ever have because you were in such an adverse situation," Bielema said.
The speech was confident, and so was the play in the second half. Even though out gained 301-to-285 overall, Wisconsin out gained Illinois 192-to-77 in the second half based on the secondary's three interceptions and Borland's forced fumble that Mike Taylor recovered on Illinois' third offensive play of the second half.
Throw in the muffed punt attempt that UW recovered on the 2-yard line late in the second quarter, Wisconsin's four scoring drives total only 115 yards – averaging just 28.75 yards per score.
"We did a great job chipping away at the iceberg," said Ball. "We did a great job of playing all four quarters all the way to the end. … This game showed we respect the game and played with heart."
The turnovers snowballed after Wisconsin turned Borland's first fumble into seven points after a 7 minute, 11 second drive to bring the score within three. On the next series, Riley O'Toole, who had been switching with Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback, failed to recognize the abilities of senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus. Assigned to A.J. Jenkins, a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff award for the country's best wide receiver, Fenelus made a diving vertical interception that stunted the drive.
Catching 76 passes for 1,133 yards and seven touchdowns entering the game, Jenkins was held to season lows in catches (4) and yards (33).
"He's playing as good as any corner in this league," Bielema said. "He's playing the best corner I've had since I've been at Wisconsin. He has so much confident in his abilities. … He took that challenge big time."
After senior quarterback Russell Wilson (who finished 10-for-13 with 90 yards and one touchdown), bootlegged in from 1-yard to give UW its first lead, Henry caught a deflected pass than Fenelus broke up against Jenkins, giving UW a first down at the Illinois 39. Four plays later, Ball scored his third touchdown on a 17-yard scamper for added insurance.
When Shelton Johnson intercepted Sheelhaase on Illinois' last drive, the Illini's second-half drives ended fumble, interception, punt, interception, interception.
"(It was a) tale of two teams out there; tale of two halves," said Illinois coach Ron Zook, whose team has dropped five straight since starting 6-0. "I told them at halftime we've got to continue to play the same way. We obviously went out there and, as soon as we turned it over the first time on offense, then it seems like they began to think and we went back into the old mood."
In addition to defense, the turnaround had to do with a little bit of guts and a little bit of luck. After Taylor's fumble recovery at the 30, Wisconsin twice went for it on fourth-and-1 and twice gave the ball to Ball with senior guard Kevin Zeitler and senior tackle Josh Oglesby as the lead blockers.
Ball inched his way over the first down marker each time and the calculated gamble was rewarded when the junior running back caught a 5-yard touchdown pass on the drive's 12th play, cutting the score to 17-14.
"You never call fourth down expecting to fail," Bielema said.
The next drive, sophomore center Ryan Groy, filling in for injured center Peter Konz, jumped the snap count and startled Russell Wilson, sending the ball bounding backwards and ended up being a 19-yard loss on third down. Punter Brad Nortman remedied that mistake by booming a 74-yard punt with the wind at his back that nestled down at the 3-yard line.
Illinois was forced to punt four plays later and working with a short field, Wilson scored on a 1-yard bootleg to give Wisconsin the lead for good.
"It shows how important special teams can be having a good play toward us," said Nortman, who put three of his four punts inside the 20. "It's such a momentum swing and it's definitely very rewarding."
If the Michigan State game was heartbreaking and the Ohio State was gut wrenching, then UW's first half could best be described as embarrassing. Out gained 224-to-93, Wisconsin's first four series were punt, punt, fumble, punt, ineffectiveness that allowed Illinois to score in the first half for the first time since Oct.8, and the Illini did it with ball control.
Freshman tailback Donovonn Young capped an 11-play, 51-yard drive that chewed up 5:14 on its second drive and got into the end zone again from 1-yard out after Wilson was blindsided and fumbled the football.
After Illinois managed only one first down in the opening half against Michigan last week, the Illini moved the chains 15 times on a Wisconsin defense that had given up an average of 15 points in the last two games.
"We knew we were walking in to a little bit of a storm," Bielema said. "We told our guys to embrace for the initial surge."
The only reason Wisconsin avoided being shutout in the first half for the first time since September 2006 (vs. San Diego State) was Justin DuVernois trying to rush a punt to avoid a four-man blitz. Instead of succeeding, he compounded the issue by fumbling the snap and getting sacked at the 2-yard line.
Two plays later, Ball was in the end zone and the momentum was swung and road to Indianapolis and a rematch with the Spartans is still intact without any major road blocks.
"Everything (is at stake)," said Ball. ‘We obviously want to make it to the Big Ten Championship and taking it to where we go after that. It's another opportunity for us to get a win."