After five weeks of playing with fire, Wisconsin finally got burned.
Not just burned … scorched.
A week after giving up 241 rushing yards and 564 total offensive yards to the Spartans, it was evident that No.5 Wisconsin didn't correct its mistakes. Poor tackling and execution and the inability to stop an Illinois rushing attack that racked up 289 yards on the ground led to a deflating 31-26 loss in Champaign.
The loss to the unranked, but favored, Fighting Illini (5-1, 3-0) ends Wisconsin's 14-game winning streak, the longest active such streak in the country.
"We're very disappointed in ourselves," junior cornerback Allen Langford said. "We feel like we had plenty of opportunities to make plays, but we made too many mistakes as a team."
For the second week in a row, the big mistake Wisconsin (5-1, 2-1) made was the inability to tackle anybody. Time after time, Illinois ball carriers were able to elude poor tackling technique by Wisconsin and continually march down the field.
"We're a Big Ten football team and ranked that high, you've got to come out and do your job every day, every play," junior cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu said. "We can't keep making the same mistakes over and over again. We survived it a few games this season already, making the same mistakes, and today it caught up with us.
"We've got to take personal inventory and reevaluate."
Part of the reason for the poor tackling was the outstanding play of Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall. The junior tallied his fourth 100-yard game this season by racking up 160 yards on the ground. More importantly, he registered Illinois' first three touchdowns of the game [two rushing] against a run defense that was supposed to be the strength of Wisconsin entering the season.
"With a team like us, we haven't had too much success like this, and to get a great start like we had today is important," Mendenhall said. "It's important for our team to go with confidence [and] we know we can play with anybody."
In addition to Mendenhall, sophomore quarterback Juice Williams tormented the Badgers for the second-straight year, completing 12-of-19 passes for 121 yards [one touchdown] and rushing for and additional 92 yards. The Badgers can take solace in the fact that they shut down Arrelious Benn – who caught five balls for 51 yards – but the two-headed attack was too much for Wisconsin.
Of the 63 offensive plays Illinois ran, 45 of them went into the hands of either Mendenhall or Williams.
"The guys in blue are pretty good," Bielema said. "They are strong runners; quarterback has good size to him in addition to being quick. They can make you miss tackles. As a coach, you can't accept those things."
To make matters worse, Wisconsin lost senior wide receiver Luke Swan when his left leg was awkwardly bent making a catch towards the end of the second half. Unable to walk off the field under his own power, Swan came out for the second half in street clothes, accompanied with crutches and a leg brace. After the game, Swan had discarded the crutches, but still was sporting the leg brace.
Down 11 at halftime, Wisconsin had its chances to get back in the game after putting together back-to-back scoring drives in the second half. Wisconsin's first touchdown was engineered on a 10 play, 81-yard drive right out of the gates. Forced to trust his younger receivers to make plays after No.1 receiver Swan went down with a left leg injury, Donovan found freshman Kyle Jefferson down the middle for a 42-yard touchdown.
After Mendenhall scored his third touchdown of the game to push the lead back to 11, Wisconsin answered right back, moving the ball 78 yards down the field and P.J. Hill bulldozed his way in from one-yard out and, after a failed two-point conversion, cut the lead to five.
That's unfortunately as close as the Badgers would get, as Donovan threw interceptions on UW's next two drives. Illinois used Donovan's second interception for some insurance points and, after Wisconsin bounced back with a touchdown of its own, used four consecutive running plays to earn a first down, run out the clock and start the celebration.
"Guys are in a little sense of shock, but you've got to learn to deal with it and we can't let this loss beat us twice," Ikegwuonu said.
Donovan's numbers [27-of-49 for 392 yards and two touchdowns] against Illinois were some of the best in his collegiate career, but some poor decision making, miscommunication and two costly interceptions made the comeback improbable.
"T.D.'s a competitor," Bielema said. "We've got to be sure to bring him back. He'll battle back."
A week after beating then-No.21 Penn State, Illinois registered its first back-to-back wins over ranked opponents since 1959 and beat Wisconsin for the first time since 2002.
"I'm so proud of how they've come together and tried to make this a special year," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. "So far, they have done it."