And while the Badgers entered their primetime road matchup ranked ninth in total offense and fifth in total defense, Wisconsin has put up most of those gaudy numbers at home, winning its four games in Camp Randall by a combined score of 169-16, and against four teams with a combined four wins over BCS teams.
To turn from a good team into a great team, according to head coach Gary Andersen, the Badgers had to find a way to overcome adversity and win on the road, something it had failed to do in both of its previous attempts.
On Saturday night, Wisconsin started to make that transition from good to great.
"If you're going to have any opportunity to be a great team, you have to win on the road," Andersen reiterated, as Wisconsin rode the coattails of its trio of running backs, who scored seven of the eight Badgers' touchdowns, in a 56-32 victory over Illinois at Memorial Stadium.
"It was important for them to find a way to get (one) on the road. We played some pretty good games on the road, and I believe we're a good team also."
In winning its first Big Ten road night game since 2002, Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) overcame plenty of adversity, although one couldn't tell considering Melvin Gordon rushed for 142 yards (the sixth time this season he's rushed for over 140 yards) and three scores and James White added three tallies of his own.
The Badgers built a sizeable lead at the end of the first half thanks to their offense – scoring on their first three drives – but more so the dominance of their defense. Illinois first four drives went nowhere, resulting in 12 plays, minus-11 yards and a bobbled reverse that resulted in a Badgers' first down at the Illinois 8.
But after UW's fourth drive resulted in its first punt, senior linebacker Chris Borland limped off the field after running down the field on coverage, aggravating the same right hamstring that caused him to miss the final two regular season games last season. He tried to loosen it on a stationary bike, but eventually became a cheerleader from the sideline in uniform in the first half and in street clothes in the second half.
Without having to worry about Borland, who had combined for 26 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and two pass breakups in two career games against the Illini, Illinois' explosive offense's final three series of the half resulted in 186 total yards and 17 points on just 22 plays (8.5 yards per play).
"When you lose him, you could tell," said senior linebacker Ethan Armstrong of Borland. "As seniors, we were kind of, ‘Hey, we need to pick this up and do the things that Chris does. We needed to assume that role.'"
It was the kind of adversity that Wisconsin had failed to fully recover on the road throughout the season. At Arizona State, Wisconsin saw an 8-point lead early in the second half crumble into a 32-24 deficit midway through the fourth quarter after the Badgers' secondary faltered and the offense stalled.
It was the same story three weeks ago in Columbus, as the Badgers dug themselves too deep of a hole to climb out of. And although leading 28-17 at halftime, Wisconsin had to find a way to slow a potentially dangerous offense with its best defensive playmaker – a long-range field goal kicker - out.
"The attitude was good, but the momentum was starting to swing their way a little bit," said Borland, who believes he'll be ready to play when Wisconsin travels to Iowa Nov.2. "Our guys were saying the right things and came out and showed it in the second half."
With the defense in repair, the offense kept to the ground in the second half, handing the ball off on 30 of 36 second-half plays. When quarterback Joel Stave did air it out, he targeted UW's quick, agile backs on what was a sporadically windy night.
On the first drive of the second half, Wisconsin ran on its first four plays, James White took a screen pass 30 yards down to the Illinois 16, Derek Watt hauled in another screen pass on third-and-2 to move the chains and White ended a nine-play, 75-yard drive with a three-yard touchdown that chewed up just over five minutes.
With the Badgers piled up 262 rushing yards and 451 total yards, Illinois (3-3, 0-2) never recovered, as the Illini went three-and-out and were stuffed on fourth down from the 1-yard line on their first two second-half drives to allow Wisconsin to build its insurmountable lead.
"The offense was powerful," said Andersen. "They threw the ball well, had a good mix of run and pass and the running backs ran the ball hard. Tight ends caught the ball well. It was a good mix today offensively, and it has been for a long time. They were firing on all cylinders for the most part."
Gordon eclipsed 1,000 yards for the season, tying former tailback P.J. Hill in the quickest in getting to that mark, while White rushed for 98 yards and had 29 receiving yards. True freshman Corey Clement capped the scoring with a five-yard run in the fourth quarter to give Wisconsin its fourth straight win over Illinois and eighth in the last nine games of the series.
And with momentum finally on its side, Wisconsin, and Borland, will rest up for its second bye week of the month, knowing it went 2-0 in October and asserted itself as one of the better teams in the Big Ten.