When the second half began however, Wisconsin dug deep into their bag of tricks and the Badgers' feasted on Illinois' treats.
After trailing for over 45 minutes against the upstart Fighting Illini, Wisconsin finally grabbed their first lead of the game when John Stocco found Andy Crooks for a 22-yard touchdown and a Badger lead they would not relinquish, coming back to beat the Fighting Illini 30-24.
It was a Jekyll and Hyde game for the Badgers, spotting Illinois an 18-point lead at one point early in the first half. With Illinois quarterback Juice Williams running and passing all over the Badgers in the first half, the Badgers went into halftime searching for answers.
But Wisconsin made the corrections they needed to in order to reverse the ill-fated path they were traveling on. After allowing Williams to gain 173 total yards in the first half, Wisconsin clamped down defensively on the speedy quarterback, only letting Williams gain 51 total yards. More importantly, Wisconsin didn't let Ron Zook's squad put any more points on the scoreboard.
"[Williams] is a very, very good football player," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. "He is able to create plays on his own and put himself in position to have success …I explained to the team at halftime that it was just like any other ball game we have been in. Whatever happened in the first half is over with, and what we need to do is go out in the second half and execute Wisconsin football."
From the Badgers' first offensive possession, it was evident early on that quarterback John Stocco was not himself, misfiring early and often with his receiving core. On the Badgers third drive of the game, Stocco attempted to get the ball to P.J. Hill coming out of the flat. Hill wasn't expecting the pass and never looked for the ball, but Illinois DB Travon Bellamy was ready. Bellamy stepped right into the passing land, picked off Stocco's ill-advised ball and returned it 41-yards for the Illinois touchdown.
"The pass was behind [P.J.] and they just cut right in front of it," Stocco said. "Maybe a better placed ball and P.J. catches it. We just made a lot of mistakes out there today … We were pretty much handing everything to them."
Things would only get worse for the Badgers. When the Badgers finally got into the red zone, Wisconsin was unable to make a dent in the Illinois' defense and had to settle for a Taylor Mehlhaff 21-field goal. The Fighting Illini had an answer and quickly bounced back, thanks to quarterback Juice Williams.
Williams orchestrated an eight play, 80-yard drive, highlighted by a 52-yard pass from Williams to wide receiver Derrick McPhearson to put the Illini inside the Wisconsin red zone. The long pass play was just a sampling of the threat Williams possesses. Flushed out of the pocket, Williams scrambled to his left, drawing the Badger defense in and causing McPhearson to be wide open.
"It seemed like we weren't in the right sports and everything wasn't going our way," sophomore cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu said. "We had the coverage down and forced him to run, and he was making some plays. It seemed like there was nobody there and we were going five-on-eleven."
Illinois running back Pierre Thomas finished off the Illinois scoring drive, scoring on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Williams.
Stocco's first half continued to get worse as the Wisconsin signal caller added another turnover to his stat sheet. On the first play on the Badgers' first second quarter drive, Illinois' David Lindquist sacked Stocco and forced the fumble. With the fumble, Stocco had committed more turnovers than completed passes.
With Illinois on a short field, Pierre Thomas scored his second touchdown of the game on a 1-yard touchdown run to give Illinois and improbable 21-3 lead.
The Badgers offense would wake up however, finding the end zone for the first time on the afternoon, relying on the legs of running back Lance Smith rather than the erratic arm of Stocco. With Hill having the win knocked out of him, Smith took the bulk of the carries on the drive, carrying the ball six times and scoring a 1-yard touchdown to close the game to 21-10.
"P.J. always tells me to protect the ball whenever I get in there," Smith said. "[When P.J. went down], I just thought that it's my turn. I was just focused on protecting the ball and moving the forward."
"Lance has got great talent," Bielema said. "He's got the ability as a football player. Over the last two or three weeks, he's strengthen his game as far as he prepares. If he's put into the situation, we need a starting running back; he has just as much ability as anyone."
But with time winding down before half, it seemed that Illinois was content with running out the clock. But when the Badgers called two consecutive timeouts, Illinois was forced to run a try and convert on third down. Williams did more than that, scrambling for a 20-yard gain. Illinois was able to generate a late 20-yard field goal to lead 24-10 at the half.
After a sluggish first half, Wisconsin came out rolling, scoring on their first possession of the second half. With the drive starting with a Mark Zalewski interception, Stocco began to find his passing touch, completing three passes on the drive, including a 17-yard touchdown to Luke Swan to cut the lead to seven and awaken the crowd of 81,300 in attendance.
After the Badgers tacked on a 21-yard Taylor Mehlhaff field goal and forced Illinois to go three-and-out, Wisconsin was on the move again. On the first place of the fourth quarter, Stocco completed a designed tight end screen to Crooks, who rambled 22 yards to the one. However, Illinois' Justin Harrison forced Crooks to fumble the ball into the end zone. Luckily, Crooks jumped on the ball and after the play was reviewed, Wisconsin was ahead for good.
"However it happened, it worked out," Crooks said. "I am just never wearing those socks again on my arm. I couldn't get a good grip and I am lucky it didn't cost us anything."
The touchdown was set up by a vicious block from Luke Swan, who had another career day receiving. Swan caught four passes for a team-high 85 yards and one score while blindsiding an Illinois DB to allow Crooks to break free.
"That was a lot of fun," Swan said with a laugh. "I saw that guy and he didn't see me at all. Springing Crooks was one of the best things of the day for me. He was trying to get a flag on me, but that was a legal block as far as I am concerned."
After a sluggish start, Stocco turned his day around by completing 11 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. Additionally, Stocco's poise and calm in the face of adversity received praise from the opposing coach.
"[Wisconsin] didn't get worried and just played their game," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. "I thought [Stocco] played very well. After the interception for a touchdown, he showed everyone how composed he was in the second half, making some big throws and not making many mistakes."
Although the game could be a character builder for the Badgers, proving to the Badgers that they can fight uphill against a challenging team, team captain Mark Zalewski prefers that there next four games are a little more ‘stress-free.'
"I am glad we showed that we can come back, but we didn't need [a game like this]," Zalewski said. "It's good to know that the team has that character, but I would like to win every game 80-0 … We knew what we had to do going into halftime. First half we didn't perform and second half we did enough to get the victory."