I really don't know what to make of Russell Wilson's performance Saturday at Champaign because he really didn't do much to open my eyes (shocking considering he does something every week that makes people go wow). I mean, he attempted 13 passes, which ties his season low against UNLV, and his 90 passing yards were his lowest since the 2009 season opener. There was a stiff wind all afternoon through Memorial Stadium, so I can understand the reluctance to air it out.
Even with the breeze, Wilson still managed to flutter out a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ball, giving him at least one TD pass in 35-straight games, just one shy of the NCAA record of 36-straight set by Texas Tech's Graham Harrell in 2006. He also completed two third-down passes (third-and-6 and third-and-5) to ice the game.
Wilson also ran for a touchdown, his fifth rushing TD of the season and 22nd of his career, and has now accounted for 32 TDs this season (26 passing, five rushing, one receiving). Wilson was responsible for the only turnover of the game when he was blindsided on a bull rush by Whitney Mercilus and coughed up the football.
Wilson looked fine running the offense and was heads up in simply falling on the bad snap instead of trying to make something happen, but certainly was not a memorable performance.
Just call him Moneyball. There's not a more confident player on Wisconsin's roster and a player putting up bigger numbers than junior running back Montee Ball. Ball went over 100 yards for the seventh time this season and the 13th time in his career and over 200 yards for the second time in 2011 when he finishing with a career-high 38 carries for a career-high 224 yards.
In the last three weeks, Ball has run for 613 yards, an average of 204.3 per game. In four November games last season, he averaged 161.3 yards.
"At the beginning of the season going into the first game, I thought I was going to be 14 carries here and there splitting carries," Ball said. "I put it on myself to make that jump and become the featured back."
Ball scored a touchdown for the 17th-straight game and has scored at least two TDs in every game this season. His 1-yard plunge in the second quarter was his ninth 1-yard touchdown score of the season and his 5-yard catch was fifth receiving score of the season, showing how complete of a back he has become.
The only bad mark against him was his fumble at the end of an 8-yard run in the second quarter, ending a run of 827 consecutive touches – runs, receptions, returns – by a UW running back without a fumble. Jared Abbrederis recovered the fumble, so UW's backs haven't lost a fumble since week 2 of last season.
It's Ball's show now, as James White only had one carry for negative one yard and none after the second quarter. He also appeared to bump into right tackle Josh Oglesby on the sack-fumble play that didn't allow the senior lineman to recover in time.
Hard to really grade out the receivers when the ball was never really in the air. Ball had the only touchdown catch, but he also had a negative 6-yard catch in the first quarter. Jared Abbrederis, recovering from a shoulder injury, had just one catch for 15 yards (but it was a big third-down conversion to ice the game) and Jeff Duckworth had a catch for nine.
If it wasn't for Nick Toon, the numbers would have been really low. Over the last two weeks, Toon and Wilson have developed a solid connection on sideline out routes, as Toon has put a solid misdirection move on a cornerback and makes his break just as Wilson releases the ball. On the first drive of the second quarter, Toon and Wilson connected for 20 and 24 yards to get UW inside the 25 before the QB's fumble.
Toon is regaining his form and will need to continue going upward now that the schedule gets really challenging for UW.
I gave the offensive line some flak in the first half when the score was 17-7 Illinois and the Badgers had just 52 rushing yards on 16 attempts. It made me recall UW's two losses of the season when the offensive line got pushed around by physical fronts and couldn't muster consistent run production or pocket containment.
I changed my tune slightly after the game, but it still begs a little concern going forward, especially with a solid Penn State defensive line coming into the picture this weekend.
Wisconsin averaged 4.3 yards per rush and 5.7 yards per rush by its running backs, not bad for a patchwork offensive line that twice had to shift personnel. Ricky Wagner tweaked his left knee, forcing left and right tackle backup Rob Havenstein to jump in and play a couple series.
Right tackle Josh Oglesby got beaten off the line by Mercilus and caused an UW fumble that led to an Illinois touchdown. Other than that, Oglesby contained Mercilus, who finished with just two tackles and that sack-forced fumble. It was no surprise that when UW needed a yard or two, the Badgers ran behind Oglesby and Kevin Zeitler.
Wagner's return was critical because it allowed UW to move the 6-foot-8, 345-pound Havenstein as a jumbo tight end on those fourth-down runs.
"It is a nice look," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "It's tough to defend because you can go multiple directions, give a couple different looks and obviously some play-action passes have been good for us as well."
Ryan Groy was shaky in his first start at center and it came to a head in the third quarter when he was whistled for an illegal snap and jumped the snap count, resulting in him pitching the shotgun snap over his head that Wilson pounced on for a 19-yard loss to the UW 23. Groy accepted full responsibility in jumping the count, but the point was moot when UW registered a 72-yard punt and flipped the field.
On the next series, offensive line coach Bob Bostad flipped left guard Travis Frederick to center, where he started two games as at true freshman, and put Groy at left guard, where he started for Frederick in week 2.
After that, Wisconsin had touchdown drives of 44 and 39 yards after the switch to rally.
"The ability for Travis and Ryan to switch there in the middle of the third quarter was a big part of what we were able to do," Bielema said. "When Ryan put that one over the head, I think Bo felt it was time to make a switch. Frederick is pretty calm under pressure. It obviously ended up working out very well."
The only UW sack of the game was an athletic one, as Tyler Dippel outmuscled the tight end for a 7-yard third-down sack on the Illini's first series.
After starting his first six games, Brendan Kelly (foot) was replaced by sophomore Pat Muldoon, who got his first start at defensive end. Both played and Muldoon had two assisted tackles while Kelly did not record a tackle.
Ethan Hemer lost his cool and was flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for shoving Illinois center Graham Pocic after the play. He was bailed out by Antonio Fenelus' interception on the next play.
Patrick Butrym, Dippel, Hemer and Louis Nzegwu all had three tackles on what was a very balanced day up front, as the Badgers didn't allow any of Illinois' eight ball carries to rush for over 45 yards and firmed up the coverage on the ends. Two rushing touchdowns by Illinois and 224 total offense yards in the first half knocks the grade down a half point.
Sophomore linebacker Chris Borland recorded a game-high 16 tackles, the sixth time he has posted double-digit tackles this season, and forced two fumbles. For the season, Borland has forced four fumbles this season and nine overall at UW.
Borland's second forced fumble resulted in Mike Taylor recovering it on the Illinois 30-yard line and allowed the UW offense to go 12 plays in 7:11 for a touchdown to close within 17-14. It was the momentum changer Wisconsin needed.
"The momentum helps," said Borland. "That momentum helps the defense confidence and makes the opponents a little hesitant. … That was big. They were up two scores and we were starting on defense, so we understood that we had to get our offense the ball back and hopefully in good field position."
Taylor finished with 13 tackles and Kevin Claxton finished with six, helping limit the Illini passing attack to only 39 second-half yards.
In what was probably the group's best game of the season and hands down its best half of the season, the secondary grabbed three interceptions on Illinois' last four possessions. It's the main reason Illinois only ran 23 offensive plays in the second half (19 fewer than it did in the first half).
Antonio Fenelus should be a shoe-on for first-team All-Big Ten selection after shutting down A.J. Jenkins, registering one of the interceptions on an extremely athletic diving pick and setting up Aaron Henry's interception by registering a pass breakup. In addition to Henry's interception, the senior safety made nine tackles, including one on a reverse that could have gone for big yards.
Shelton Johnson put the final nail in the coffin with his second career interception.
Not only was Brad Nortman's 74-yard punt in the third quarter was the longest of the season and second-longest of his career, it was vital in wiping out the bad snap and pinning Illinois deep inside its own 5. Illinois punted three plays later and Wisconsin scored four plays later to take the lead for good.
"I am always trying to (boom it)," said Nortman, who averaged 48.2 yards on his four punts and placed three inside the 20. "It certainly felt nice with the win at your back. Going into it was pretty challenging. That was one of the more drastic winds I have felt, this season especially. Being able to change field position and help our defense do what they do best, I felt it was good to be able to contribute to the game like that."
Conor O'Neill made a big tackle after punter Justin DuVernois drop the ball in his end zone and tried to make something happen. Instead, O'Neill tackled him on the 2-yard line and UW scored two plays later.
Wisconsin's coverage units were outstanding. Kicker Philip Welch booted three of his five kickoffs into the end zone for a touchback and Illinois' only kickoff return was for negative-3 yards. None of punter Brad Nortman's four punts were returned.