"[Illinois] has strong runners," said Badger head coach Bret Bielema. "Good size, in addition to being quick. They can make you miss tackles."
Fighting Illini running back Rashard Mendenhall did much of the damage to the Badgers. His 6.4 yards per carry average ranks sixth nationally among backs with at least 50 carries and his eight touchdowns ranks second in the Big Ten. Against the Badgers, Mendenhall finished with an 8.4 yards per carry, racking up 160 yards.
"[Mendenhall] is a good running back," said Badger defensive tackle Jason Chapman. "You expect him to break some tackles and make big plays. It was just sad that it had to happen [Saturday]."
The Badgers have reason for concern, as their 125 rushing yards allowed per game are the seventh worst total in the Big Ten. The Badgers four rushing touchdowns also ranks seventh.
Giving up rushing touchdowns is a critical indicator that the Badger's rush defense hasn't been performing well.
"Fundamentally, [the defense] has to tackle better," said Bielema. "We just gotta get more guys to the ball and be physical when we get there."
Mendenhall tested the Badgers early with quick cuts and his offensive line holding their blocks. On the Fighting Illini's second drive, he ran through a hole right up the middle for a 26-yard run. Two plays later, the Fighting Illini ran a trick option play that helped Mendenhall bounce to the outside for 32 yards and a touchdown. During the next drive, he ran for 22 yards without being touched.
The strong Illinois rushing attack was not a surprise to the Badgers. Illinois ranks sixth in the country with 225.6 rushing yards. They lead the Big Ten in that category by almost 50 yards. The Badgers were at least prepared for the Illinois attack.
"[We] were looking at scouting reports," said Chapman. "Just coming in practice and looking at film, making corrections and just getting ready."
Gang tackling seemed to be the surest way to stop Mendenhall for parts of the first half. But after several big passing plays, Illinois got down into the Badger's redzone. Another quick option sprung Mendenhall for a five-yard touchdown.
Heading into the third quarter with a 17-6 deficit, the Badgers had one clear-cut problem – they had already given up 100 rushing yards to Mendenhall.
Illinois quarterback Juice Williams began the second half with two 24-yard rushes of his own. In addition to the success by Mendenhall, Wisconsin gave up 92 yards for a 6.6-yard per carry average to Williams.
During the third quarter, Wisconsin still couldn't control the Illinois' rushing attack. Just about every running play resulted in at least five yards.
Fortunately, the Badger offense was able to begin chipping away at the lead. But all hope was broken shortly by the Illinois running attack.
After being quiet for some time, Mendenhall crushed the Wisconsin defense for some timely gains and several key first downs.
With Wisconsin down five points, Mendenhall broke three tackles on a long 24-yard rush. At that point in the game, the Illinois rush offense was igniting the rest of the team.
On a key third and one with 7:10 left, Mendenhall got the first down with a long rush to the outside. With the lead, Illinois continually moved the chains and drained the clock to ensure the Wisconsin loss. Nothing Wisconsin tried against the Illinois running game worked.
"[We] were not making our plays," said Chapman. "If one man messes up they can find that weakness and go to it."
Mendenhall in particular could not be stopped. He ran 19 times for 160 yards and two touchdowns. His 8.4 yards per carry average was just devastating for the Wisconsin defense that has recent history of not performing well.
Late in the fourth quarter Wisconsin gave up their worst drive of the day. Illinois got a 31-19 lead – with nine rushes and not a single pass – to put the game out of reach. They averaged nearly eight yards per carry on the drive and never once got less than four yards per play. Wisconsin couldn't stop the run when they knew it was coming and knew it.
"We were giving up a lot of opportunities as we discussed in the locker room," said Chapman. "The way you practice is the way you play. You just gotta make those tackles in practice and in the game."
The biggest play of the day was yet again another disappointment. On a late fourth down, Wisconsin was either going to stop the Illinois first down or they were going to lose the longest winning streak in the country.
Illinois ran a quarterback sneak and got the first down. Game over.
"It's frustrating, but at the same time I'm angry." said Chapman. "It's an attitude thing."
The rush defense wasn't entirely at fault for the loss, but a critical weakness certainly wasn't corrected coming into Champaign. The Wisconsin rush defense had to prove they could be better than their history shows, but they just couldn't make the adjustments.