CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The University of Wisconsin already went into Saturday’s road game missing its star running back in junior Corey Clement and an emerging receiving target in senior tight end Austin Traylor.
So when three more offensive starters went down for Wisconsin, including starting quarterback Joel Stave in the first quarter and two more on the same third-quarter drive with the Badgers’ trailing 13-10, nobody flinched on the visiting sideline. They are used to going with the flow.
“I think you have to react positively,” said head coach Paul Chryst. “Whether it’s football or whatever, life’s about making choices and how you choose to respond to something. To give our team the best chance, members of the team need to respond positively.
“That can challenge you, but it’s opportunity and you have to seize the opportunity.”
Nobody seized the chance to shine more than redshirt junior quarterback Bart Houston. Even when injuries late knocked out starting receiver Rob Wheelwright and center Dan Voltz, the Badgers still manage to roll up yards of offense in their hard-fought 24-13 win over Illinois at Memorial Stadium.
In a word, it was a gritty, gutsy effort.
“That’s a hell of a team,” said senior Tanner McEvoy, who helped out as the wildcat quarterback and at receiver in addition to his safety duties. “We had to give them everything we got to get a win ... We have a lot of potential on this team.”
Injuries have been the norm for Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) this season, especially considering the number of walking wounded on the offensive line that dates back to spring practices, but Stave had carried the offense to the tune of two consecutive 300-yard passing games and 244 yards per game through the air until the afternoon tilt against Illinois.
That run ended when he was knocked out of the game with a head injury in the first quarter.
Houston entered the game for a play on the second drive of the game, then for the rest of the game midway through Wisconsin’s third drive after Stave came off the field. Down 3-0 after a Taylor Zalewski 37-yard field goal, he took over and led the Badgers to their first score of the game, hitting Wheelwright on an impressive-looking 23-yard reception to put UW ahead 7-3.
The former prep standout ended his afternoon 22-of-33 for 232 yards with two touchdown passes and two interceptions in his relief effort. Though a couple of costly mistakes left points off the board, Houston asserted himself well.
“When your starting quarterback goes down, you definitely have to rely on the leaders of the team to make sure that everyone keeps the goal in sight,” said senior safety Michael Caputo. “I thought Bart Houston did really well. I thought he came in and did extremely well. He was a leader out there. He took control of the offense and control of the team. That inspires us all.”
The Badgers took a 10-6 lead into halftime, though it could have been more. Houston led the offense down to the Illinois 3 in their last series of the first half, but a Wheelwright drop was amplified when Houston was intercepted by Eaton Spence in the end zone.
After the Badgers were staggered in their first two series in the second half, Illinois drove 86 yards in only five plays, capped by running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn’s 36-yard touchdown run -- putting the Illini up 13-10.
It was a small blip on the Badgers’ defensive effort for the afternoon, as defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s unit held Illinois (4-3, 1-2) to 333 total yards and only three third down conversions in 12 opportunities on the afternoon. Coming into the game only giving up 10.9 points per game -- third best in the FBS -- the defense held the Illini to 13 points.
Vaughn only gained 55 yards on 13 carries, and without the 36-yard scamper for a score, was held to 19 yards on 12 carries. Lunt finished 22-of-43 for 278 yards with an interception, and Illinois’ main target - wide receiver Geronimo Allison - was contained to eight catches for 99 yards.
“They had a couple big plays that we’ll need to get better at, and we did,” said Caputo. “They hit us on it early, we cleaned it up, got the corrections. Eliminating the big plays was definitely a big deal. They still had some throws down field and some runs that got out a little bit, but we kept playing. That shows our character.”
UW responded the next drive after Illinois’ only touchdown. Driving 86 yards themselves in eight plays with some timely fly sweeps from redshirt senior wide receiver Alex Erickson, who took the first play of the series 56 yards to the Illinois 30, true freshman running back Alec Ingold ran it in from two yards out. It was the fourth rushing touchdown for Ingold this season.
UW did all of it despite losing Wheelwright on Erickson’s run and Voltz right before the touchdown run.
After the Badgers’ defense held Lunt’s offense to a three-and-out the drive after the touchdown, a 13-play, 65-yard drive culminated in a nine-yard touchdown pass from Houston to Erickson. The former walk-on caught 10 passes for 96 yards and ran four times for 81 yards, leading the team in both categories.
“Erickson is as cool as they come,” said right tackle Beau Benzschawel. “He makes big plays when he has to. That’s just great for us being offensive linemen, just knowing that if you give the quarterback time he’s going to be able to make plays.”
Despite the injuries to five key contributors to the offense, UW found a way to win, converting on 9-of-16 third downs and ended the game with 138 yards rushing -- a better effort than last week’s 96-yard performance against Purdue.
Though the statuses of four of the five starters injured on offense are up in the air for next Saturday’s game against Rutgers, the Badgers are now on a three-game winning streak and still in the hunt for a Big Ten West division title after their conference-opening loss to Iowa.
“We’ve got guys that can step up and fill in their role,” said McEvoy. “It’s part of the game. We’ve just got to roll with the punches.”