It looked like either Mike Samuel or Brooks Bollinger had received another game of eligibility.
Saturday, all notions of the spread offense and Wisconsin's much-ballyhooed passing game went out the window. In its place was a persistent power running game that punished Illinois to the tune of 307 yards on the ground.
The Badgers, applauded for their offensive balance early in the season, suddenly became a Wisconsin team of yore. They ran the ball 63 times against just 13 passes—a disparity that grew more pronounced as the game went progressed. The team pounded running backs Dwayne Smith and Booker Stanley, who commendably replaced the still-recovering Anthony Davis, behind an offensive line that opened gaping hole after gaping hole.
Quarterback Jim Sorgi even took to the ground, scoring two touchdowns, one on an eight-yard sprint to the pylon; the other a four-yard inside quarterback draw. The latter play invoked images of Wisconsin's last two signal callers, with one noticeable difference, however.
"He is so thin I don't think they even knew he was in the end zone that one time," Alvarez said. "It was such a long time before they signaled touchdown."
Smith finished with 34 carries for 193 yards and three touchdowns—the second consecutive week a Wisconsin tailback ran for three scores. Last week's star, Stanley, had 12 carries for 55 yards. Sorgi ran the ball three times for 24 yards and the two scores, but a sack resulted in a final net rushing total of 17 yards. Even fullback Matt Bernstein got in on the act, with 29 yards on five attempts.
Of course Bernstein was usually joining the offensive linemen, tight ends and receivers in drilling holes into the Illini defense.
"We just kept rolling from last week and kept pounding the ball," Wisconsin left tackle Morgan Davis said. "We were just running the ball and having some fun out there. We were going like clockwork. Wait until ‘AD' (Anthony Davis) comes back and we'll see what happens with him. The sky is the limit from there."
Wisconsin's offense was absolutely stellar out of the gate. Wisconsin's first three drives resulted in touchdowns, each drive covering more ground than the one before. The Badgers started innocently enough with Smith running for three yards. Then Smith burst up the middle for 12 yards, followed by an 11-yard completion from Sorgi to Lee Evans along the sideline. On Wisconsin's fourth play from scrimmage Smith went around left end and was not touched until he slammed into an Illini defensive back at the goal line, culminating a 19-yard touchdown run.
So it went on Wisconsin's opening possessions. The Badgers followed the four-play 45-yard, one-minute and 14-second opening drive with one that covered 68 yards in nine plays and 3:04. The third drive read 14 plays, 80 yards and eight minutes off the clock.
Wisconsin did it almost entirely on the ground. The Badgers ran the ball 21 times for 137 yards on the opening three possessions with Smith tallying 11 carries, 80 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Sorgi's arm was efficient, if rarely used: five for six passing, 51 yards. Sorgi completed four passes to Lee Evans for 45 yards and one to Matt Bernstein for six yards. Wisconsin would throw just six more passes the rest of the game, completing only two.
"I thought we were excellent those first three drives," Alvarez said. "We stuck it in there pretty good with the run. When we threw it Jim was very crisp in throwing. Obviously we had all the momentum."
Sorgi bruised sternum Saturday
The biggest reason Wisconsin threw just 13 passes Saturday was the effectiveness of the team's running game. Another reason, though, is that Sorgi took plenty of shots from the Illini defense. Sorgi left the game for one series early in the third quarter after Illini defensive lineman Jeff Ruffin drove him into the ground at the 13:38 mark in the period.
"My shoulder pads come down a certain way on my sternum and then my rib pads kind of hang a little lower so it gives you kind of a rectangle box right where my sternum is at," Sorgi said. "I caught it right in the middle and bruised my sternum."
The Badgers did not need to throw much the rest of the game, but chose to take a shot downfield on Sorgi's first play back in the lineup. Sorgi fired a deep out to Brandon Williams that took the form of a jump ball, with Illini corner Alan Ball attempting to cut in front and deflect, or intercept, the pass. Ball, though, could not get his hands on the pass, Williams leapt and secured it, and sprinted down the sideline, picking up 75 yards before Christian Morton knocked him out of bounds.
"The play was an option route," Williams said. "Sorgi just looked at me and said, ‘I'm going to you' and I just made a play….I just expected to catch it and get tackled but (Ball) went for they pick and missed."
"I was really pleased with Jim, he took a pretty good shot and bruised his sternum," Alvarez said. "He had a hard time throwing, just getting the ball up but bounced back and answered and did what he had to do."
Sorgi also suffered a minor injury in practice Wednesday but said it did not affect his play.
"I'm OK physically," Sorgi said. "Wednesday we were doing two minute drills in practice. During the two minute drill I rolled out to the right, threw the ball and a (defensive back) stepped in front of me and I pretty much smacked my hand as hard as you can smack it. But I hit it in a way where—if I had hit it any other way I definitely could have broken my hand, so God was with me on that day also. I guess I'm living right because they can't seem to put me down."
A turn of fortunes
With less than five minutes to play in the third quarter, Wisconsin led 28-20 and faced a third-and-nine at its own 32. The Illini had the momentum and had already caused two three-and-outs in the second half.
The Badgers tried to set up a screen pass but quarterback Jim Sorgi was quickly scrambling away from the Illini rush. Sorgi threw against his body and Illinois linebacker Antonio Mason deflected the ball to himself, intercepted the pass in the flat and returned it for a touchdown. The play, though, was called back due to a roughing the passer penalty.
Rather than a 28-26 game with a likely two-point conversion attempt on the way, the Badgers had first-and-10 at their 47.
"Obviously it was a huge, crucial play of the game," Illinois coach Ron Turner said. "That's kind of what we've done this year, when we have crucial situations like that, when we have a chance to get back into the game and gain momentum. It was going to cut it down to a two-point game, possibly go for two and eventually tie it up, but we make those kind of mistakes."
Wisconsin capitalized on the new opportunity, going the remaining 53 yards in 12 plays, capped with Jim Sorgi's second rushing touchdown of the game on a four-yard quarterback draw. The play gave the Badgers a commanding 35-20 lead.
"That whole play changed the whole momentum of the game, and it did if for them," Illinois fullback Carey Davis said.
Anthony Davis was considered day-to-day leading up to Saturday's game. He is nearly ready to play after spraining his ankle two weeks ago against UNLV.
"Would like to get 28 back in there—I kind of miss him," Alvarez said. "He is pretty close. Our decision was made beforehand. He can run, he can cut, he can jump up and down on it. He didn't have enough reps and we didn't think it would be fair to play him today."