Going against an Illinois defense allowing 195.4 yards on the ground per game, a number that put them second to last in the conference and 97th in the country, Wisconsin racked up 289 yards on 46 attempts (6.3 yards per rush) and used the likes of Melvin Gordon and James White to build a steady lead and hold off the Illini by answering each score with one of its own.
White and Gordon each scored three touchdowns on the night and combined for 240 yards on 37 carries. True freshman Corey Clement got some action in the fourth quarter, notching 54 yards and the backfield's seventh total touchdown.
"Those kids are special, special running backs," said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. "They do some great things."
In the first half, the Badgers (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) didn't have to worry about Illinois scoring after they jumped out to a quick 21-0 lead on their first three drives – drives capped by touchdown runs from Gordon and White and passing reception from Brian Wozniak.
However, after two straight drives that totaled five yards and ended with two punts in the second quarter, the momentum started to slip away from the visitors. After an Illinois field goal and touchdown cut the lead to 28-17 going into halftime, the Badgers needed an answer.
Wisconsin received the second half kickoff and it leaned once again on the strength of their tailbacks. The Badgers marched 75 yards down the field in 5:05, mixing run plays and short passes to the tailbacks, and expanded the lead to 18 when White caught a 3-yard score.
White – who finished the game with 127 total yards (98 rushing, 29 receiving) on 23 touches – made the biggest play taking a screen pass 30 yards to the Illinois 16 yard-line after a slick juke move gave him plenty of running room.
"It was very important because we gave them a chance a little bit in the second quarter so as an offense we wanted to put a drive together, especially starting out in the second half just to really try and put them away," White said. "We wanted to come out there and put a touchdown on the board … It was a very pivotal point in the game."
The scoring drive was the sixth time in seven games that the Badgers scored to begin the half. On the drive, it was the play of UW's backfield that moved the ball down the field. Gordon, White and Derek Watt touched the ball on all nine plays.
The following drive, the Badgers used 2:20 of the clock running the ball through the Illinois defense. Gordon and White combined for 44 of the 56 yards on the five-play scoring drive capped by Gordon's third touchdown of the night that pushed the lead to 42-17.
"Defensively we didn't tackle well in space," Illinois head coach Tim Beckman said. "Again, they've got a couple of good backs, there's no question, and they've made people look that way a little bit all year long."
Starting out quickly and outscoring their opponents is what Andersen preaches to his team. So far it's been successful.
"That's how it is, you've got to keep the momentum," said Gordon. "If you let them get the momentum in their house, you know they can deliver and they can beat you. So us fighting back like that, responding, that shows the character of the guys we have on our offensive line and just our offensive group."
Gordon was dangerous on jet-sweeps and out of the backfield all night, shredding the Illinois defense for 142 yards on 17 carries. With the performance, Gordon became the fastest tailback in Wisconsin history to reach 1,000 yards since P.J. Hill did it in seven games in 2007.
"He still wows me every single week," Anderson said of Gordon. "There is a run or two every single week where it's like ‘holy cow' … For Melvin to get over 1,000 yards is very impressive and I know he is excited about getting that done."
In addition, Gordon has run for at least 140 yards in six of the Badgers' seven games this season.
"I don't think about it too much," said Gordon about already reaching the 1,000 yard plateau this season. "I just try to go out there and I just try to help move the ball down the field and if I end up with 75 yards that's what it is."