All week long Wisconsin players and coaches managed expectations like politicians leading up to a debate. Of course Anthony Davis was going to boost the offense, they said, but he could be rusty.
After three weeks away from the football field nursing an eye injury, Davis had every reason to be not quite himself—to be, perhaps, a step slower, a bit less instinctual or maybe not as durable.
Saturday, though, Anthony Davis did more than just pick up a stunted offense: he flat-out dominated the game from start to finish, accounting for 250 of Wisconsin's 357 total yards and all three of the Badgers' touchdowns in a 24-7 win over Illinois.
"I thought the first time he carried the ball, I said, ‘he's faster. He's at a different speed than everyone else on the field,'" Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "That was my first observation after he carried the first time and I think it was about a four-yard gain."
Davis took that first carry running to his left but saw a crack of daylight to his right and cut against the grain, picking up four yards. It was indicative of the day Davis' enjoyed. He consistently picked up yards when it appeared nothing was available. He bulled through defenders and evaded would-be tackles. When a sliver of daylight arose, Davis was gone.
"He just played fantastic football, made a lot of great runs, caught the ball well," offensive coordinator Brian White said. "You don't replace guys like that. I think that you become a lot more aware of what a special player he is when he really determines the outcome of the game today, which he did."
All told Davis ran 27 times for 213 yards and caught three passes for 37. He scored from 16, 7 and 31 yards out, each touchdown run more impressive than the one it preceded. But it was the little plays along the way that made the difference in Davis' outing, and Wisconsin's victory.
Wisconsin went three-and-out its first drive and was in danger of doing so again on its second possession, facing a third-and-12. Davis caught a pass in the flat and looked dead to rights, but he broke two tackles, evaded a pair of Illini and dashed 13 yards for a first down.
"At the beginning of the game the main thing I was focusing on was relaxing and not trying too hard," Davis said. "I just wanted to let the game come to me. Eventually I just got lost in the game and I didn't think about rust, I didn't think about how many carries I had or nothing."
One drive later, Davis touched the ball six times and picked up 50 yards in a 9-play 73-yard drive. On a second-and-eight at the Illinois 35, Davis caught his second pass, evaded Illini corner Kelvin Hayden at the 30 and darted 12 more yards. Two plays later, Davis followed guard Dan Buenning and fullback Matt Bernstein to the left side, found a seam and barreled into the end zone.
"If you are a coach from Illinois you are saying, ‘we've got all the pegs in the right holes but we still give up a touchdown,'" White said. "That's what great players add to a football team is they erase schemes and they make plays. That's what Anthony did today."
"There were times when it looked like we were playing pretty good defense and had a chance to get him tackled for a minimal gain and he turned it into a big gain," Illinois coach Ron Turner said. "He's a great player."
He also erased Wisconsin mistakes. A false start on first-and-goal pushed the Badgers back to the seven, but Davis made a good run look extraordinarily simple, slide-stepping into the hole and trotting into the end zone. He set that touchdown up with a 26-yard jaunt on third-and-two.
In three games with Davis out of the lineup, Wisconsin tailbacks broke a run of more than 20 yards just twice, for 23 yards each time. Saturday, Davis topped 20 yards four times (31, 27, 26 and 21).
"We moved the chains with him in there. A couple of those touchdowns may have been three, or four, or five-yard runs with other people," Alvarez said. "That's quite a lift for an offensive lineman to see a big hit, you know, when you have been blocking that way for a while and all of a sudden he runs through something and his speed allows him to get to the end zone."
For his closing act, Davis took a fourth-and-three handoff and bounced it outside, turning the corner in a blur. He outran a defensive back that seemingly had an angle, told him about it the last five yards or so of his 31-yard touchdown and then saluted the student section from the back of the end zone, hoisting his arms into an "O" in front of the stands by the same name.
Davis was flagged for the celebration.
"I don't know," Davis said when asked if the 15-yard penalty was worth it. "I'll find out tomorrow…It depends on what coach says."
Alvarez, who was seated next to Davis during the post-game press conference, smiled and said, "We'll have a discussion."
It may have been the only blemish on a spectacular afternoon.
Return of the back
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