Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said after the game that the conditions (occasional wind gusts of 13 miles per hour) didn't have any effect on the play calling, but it seemed to have effect on at least one big play opportunity that Joel Stave just didn't execute on.
With Wisconsin up 21-3 following touchdowns on its first three drives, the Badgers could have delivered the dagger when Jared Abbrederis was running free behind the defense. In what has been a problem this season, Stave simply couldn't connect with the throw, severely underthrowing his receiver and missing the mark. UW had to punt following a three-and-out.
"There are those glaring throws," said Andersen. "Trust me, the first guy that wants those back is Joel, and the second guy that wants those back is Coach Ludwig. You would like to get those throws back."
Overall Stave's numbers were fine. He was 16 of 21 for 189 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers. Following the miss, Wisconsin was content with the short passing game, as Stave got the ball into the hands of his tailbacks on screens or passes to the flat or medium routes to Abbrederis or his tight ends to keep the offense moving.
"I think Joel's progressed every week," said Andersen. "He carries himself well. He seems to adjust with what defenses are doing … He adjusts to those moments in those situations and continues to impress me down those lines."
Stave is playing fine for Wisconsin, but the Badgers eventually should be getting more out of its passing game.
What more can you say about a group of tailbacks that continues to be the focal point of every defense they face but still produce at a high level?
Rushing for 142 yards on just 17 carries (8.4 yards per carry), Melvin Gordon has rushed for at least 140 yards in six of UW's seven games this season. Gordon surpassed 1,000 yards for the season, tying P.J. Hill (2006) for the quickest to 1,000 yards rushing for any UW player in a season.
He also tied his career high with three touchdowns, scoring on runs of 26, 1 and 13.
"I've been around a lot of good running backs that have been on the teams that I've been involved with, but nobody quite as dynamic in the run game as Melvin is," said Andersen. "The good thing about Melvin too is Melvin is in a position you start talking about football and what he needs to do, he understands he's got a lot to improve upon.
"His natural ability is unbelievable, and he's done a great job of developing himself, but he wants to be even a better runner between the tackles. He wants to work on his protections. He knows he's got a lot to work on. You see him do that every single week in practice.
"He's a unique football player. He's a special football player. He is what college football has really turned into, in my opinion, in a lot of ways, and that's every single time the young man touches the ball, somebody or some coach somewhere is taking a big deep breath and saying, watch out. Where's this going to stop? It could go all the way every single time he touches it, and we've seen that."
While Andersen additionally called Gordon a "special, special player," the yeoman's work senior James White continues to put in doesn't deserve to be overlooked. White finished two yards short of 100 yards, but scored two rushing touchdown and caught a three-yard touchdown in the first quarter. White now has 39 career rushing TDs and 41 career touchdowns. Both of those lead all active FBS players and is tied for sixth on UW's career list (John Clay).
White also was good in blitz pick-up and protection, as Illinois got little pressure on the quarterback, and was solid catching the ball out of the backfield, including a game-high 30-yard reception on the first drive of the third quarter that set up UW's first touchdown of the second half.
"His ability to go from one side to scan and the other side on protections and the guy looks like he's coming and doesn't come and the guy from the other side comes, and James is able to get over and block him," said Andersen. "He does that stuff very well … I thought he ran very good in this last game. I thought he was nifty. He was quick. He was physical. He had a very, very good game for us against Illinois."
Although he only had one catch, fullback Derek Watt reeled in a key third-down pass in the red zone to move the chains, setting up a touchdown.
"Watt was as good as he's played," said Andersen. "He's the player of the game for us, from a stat standpoint, as far as that side of the football. All he does is his job, and he does it with physicalness and takes pride in it every single snap. He did a tremendous job."
Corey Clement added 54 yards and one touchdown on only seven carries in the fourth quarter, showing how talented and deep this unit is.
Stave and Abbrederis continues a solid a working combinations in the passing game and being productive for the most part. Abbrederis caught eight of 11 targeted passes for 106 yards. Problem was that no other wide receiver caught a pass, but Jordan Fredrick delivered some solid downfield blocks that go unnoticed.
It'd be nice if Wisconsin could spread the ball around some more and develop another wide receiver, but it's more likely that Ohio State loses the rest of its games than that happening.
Illinois was far from the toughest test Wisconsin's offensive line was going to face this season. The Illini are porous against the run and the pass, so Wisconsin putting up yardage in each category was reassuring to see. Illinois also doesn't pressure the quarterback well at all, so the Badgers holding the Illini to one sack and only one quarterback hurry was expected, but still impressive.
"They play as hard as they can, and we try to stay as healthy as we can, and we've been good in that area, and it's really helped us," said Andersen of the offensive line. "When we've had an injury, the great thing is the next kid's stepped up, and he's been solid. We said going in, we've had seven kids that were good and solid and possibly an eighth, and we still feel that same way. Hope that continues for the next five of the regular season, and hopefully we get an opportunity to play in the postseason."
Illinois is a team that is more proficient passing the ball than running the ball, but the Badgers made the Illini one dimensional by holding them to only 72 team rushing yards. Five different players had rushing attempts for Illinois and its leading rusher – Josh Ferguson – only had 25 yards. Wisconsin did allow two rushing touchdowns, but of the 1-yard variety.
The Illini's first three possessions resulted in a combined loss of 8 yards and a Ethan Hemer fumble recovery as UW built a 21-0 lead.
Wisconsin didn't get much help from blitzing linebackers, however, as the Badgers dropped eight players into coverage frequently, leaving just the three linemen to rush the passer. That resulted in the defensive line getting no sacks and only one tackle for loss. Hard to blame the front line for that.
"When those guys play well, it makes me play well," said senior linebacker Ethan Armstrong. "They make my job so much easier. A lot of credit to those guys. They don't get enough of it."
With Chris 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, was on the field, Illinois first four drives resulted in 12 plays and minus-11 yards.
When Borland went out with an injury, Illinois final three series of the half resulted in 186 total yards and 17 points on just 22 plays (8.5 yards per play). Andersen didn't believe losing Borland impacted Wisconsin's comfort level of blitzing, saying the blitzes were blocked better than the week before, but it certainly messed with UW's psyche.
In Borland's place, Marcus Trotter delivered a team-high nine tackles, including one fumble recovery, one pass breakup and one quarterback hurry. Trotter committed a personal foul that should have been avoided, but made a key tackle on quarterback Aaron Bailey at the 1-yard line on fourth down that was a critical juncture in the game during the third quarter.
"I was at the right place at the right time, and I am very happy that made the play," said Trotter. "Our defense is coming along. This bye week is really going to help us fix the things we did wrong."
Vince Biegel, Brendan Kelly and Derek Landisch all registered four tackles, the latter each added a sack (UW's only two in the game). Kelly also forced a sack that Illinois recovered. Conor O'Neill also registered a tackle for loss, but also has a personal foul penalty whistled on him on the first play from scrimmage that should have been avoided.
Without Borland in the middle, Illinois scored three red-zone touchdowns, not good for a UW defense that had given up just five scores inside the 20 all season entering the game.
"As a defense, we did well, but we have some things we need to really look at," said Trotter. "We definitely got too many points scored against us, but that's something that's going to motivate us to get better."
Wisconsin has faced some good quarterbacks this season, including senior Nathan Scheelhaase, and the Badgers' secondary did little to make him look average. Scheelhaase completed 20 of 27 passes for 249 yards as three Illinois quarterbacks combined to throw for 319 yards and two touchdowns.
With the exception of freshman Sojourn Shelton, every starter in UW's secondary gave up a big play. Darius Hillary allowed Steve Hull get behind him on the next-to-last play of the first quarter for a 51-yard gain that set up Illinois' first touchdown, hesitating on the run fake. Hillary also had two penalties, one for holding and one for pass interference.
Junior Peniel Jean gave up a 39-yard completion o first down in the second quarter and safety Dezmen Southward was responsible for a 29-yard completion off of play-action pass to tight end Matt LaCosse.
The final nail in the coffin was late in the fourth quarter when Riley O'Toole, Illinois' backup quarterback, completed a 29-yard completion to Spencer Harris on a fade route over freshman cornerback Jakarrie Washington.
"I don't think it has anything to do with focus," said Andersen. "I don't think it has anything to do with missed assignments, but it does have to do with an issue that we have, and it can't go without being talked about and addressed because it's happened too many times."
In all, Wisconsin allowed five pass plays over 20 yards. Not an impressive performance by this group. The only thing that saves this great is the play of Michael Caputo (seven tackles) at safety and linebacker, Nate Hammon (four tackles), Southward's 1.5 tackles for loss and McEvoy's continued solid play.
Wisconsin didn't attempt a field goal, but sophomore Jack Russell – the team's placekicker (we think) for the rest of the year – cleanly made all eight extra point attempts. Kicker Andrew Endicott was also a solid weapon in the kicking game, as Illinois had seven returns that averaged only 16.7 yards per return and started better than its 22 only once.
V'Angelo Bentley, who averaged 32.1 yards per return, didn't have a return against UW because of a leg foot injury.
Endicott doesn't have the leg strength as Kyle French, but has good hang time that allows the kickoff team to do its job. Endicott also provides a tackling spark, who delivered a punishing-looking hit on UW's fourth kickoff that uncorked a wild celebration.
"He'd better get his head on a swivel because they'll be accounting for him," Andersen joked. "He won't be just a free runner anymore. It's good to see him get involved. It's good to see the emotions the kids bring when he makes that tackle."
Kenzel Doe picked a good time for the longest return of his career, going 54 yards, thanks to some good blocking, in the fourth quarter to give UW a short field to work with. Abbrederis also was stellar on the hands team when Illinois tried a desperation onside kick with 44 seconds left and the game well out of reach.
Drew Meyer only punted three times, averaging 42.3 yards with a long of 48.