Notes: Turning the Turnover Tide

After losing the turnover battle the last three games (coincidentally losing all of those conference games in the process), the Badgers take advantage of some Illini gifts, intercepting quarterback Juice Williams three times.

MADISON — Here's a short lesson in Football 101: win the turnover battle, win the game.

Let's look how the University of Wisconsin has proven this theory, shall we?

In UW's first four Big Ten games, Wisconsin threw eight interceptions (four by Allan Evridge, three by Dustin Sherer and one by Scott Tolzien) and lost five fumbles. That's 13 giveaways; the Badgers caused eight turnovers themselves, not a bad number until you realize five of them happened in the first half of that wacky Michigan game

. So basically, since their season took a 180-degree turn at halftime in Ann Arbor, the Badgers are minus-8 in turnovers, on the wrong end of an 11-3 spectrum.

In case you needed a reminder, UW went 0-4 in those games.

On Saturday, Wisconsin had just one turnover, a Sherer fumble on the first drive. Luckily, free safety Chris Maragos nullified that with a 51-yard interception return, leading to a Philip Welch field goal.

UW would add two picks later, including a 47-yard return by Niles Brinkley that set up Welch's other field goal.

Wisconsin won the turnover battle, three to one. In a related story, it won 27-17.

See what happens when a team takes care of the ball on its own end, and stops its opponent from doing the same?

"In every game, it's important to get turnovers," said Brinkley, who had seven tackles to go with his third interception of the season. "Especially at home, it gives your crowd energy. It gives the offense back the ball, so they can have an opportunity to score. Turnovers, that's big on defense and offense."

The beleaguered UW defense, which had allowed 33.2 points per game in Big Ten games (third-worst in the conference), was more active than it's been all season. Maragos and strong safety Jay Valai were particularly active all over the field.

"It's fun to watch Jay Valai run around, it really gives you a lot of confidence, because when you see him throwing himself in there, smacking guys, that kind of gets you excited," Maragos said. "He really brings a presence to our team physically."

Maragos might be a candidate for UW's defensive MVP this week. Along with six tackles and his first interception as a Badger, he ran down UI kick returner Arrelious Benn for a touchdown-saving tackle.

That saved UW four points, when Illinois only mustered a field goal.

"We always talk about on defense, living to see another play," said Maragos, who appears to have fully supplanted Shane Carter at free safety. "That's something I want to do, is just get that guy down. That was a lot of momentum we gained from that play."

This defense not only picked off Juice Williams three times, but it held the shifty IU quarterback to four rushing yards on eight carries.

This was arguably UW's finest effort, particularly against an Illinois team that embarrassed Wisconsin's defense last year.

"Four-game losing streak, we were hungry and mad," Valai said. "Payback from last year too, because Illinois gave it to us last year. We had a lot of things going on in our minds, and we came out and played pretty hard."

Thanking the fans

The last month has undoubtedly been the toughest of UW head coach Bret Bielema's life.

Every postgame interview, every mid-week press conference during this four-game losing streak has been difficult for the third-year coach. Last Monday, he expressed his inner struggles during this 0-4 start, and talked about some other people offering their encouragement.

So it made Bielema's opening statement Saturday that much more interesting, when he immediately took time to thank Wisconsin's fan base, which was beginning to grow aggravated with not seeing a Badger win since Sept. 13 at Fresno State.

"The one thing I wanted to start with is thanking our fans," Bielema said. "I told our kids during the course of the week there was going to be 80,000 Badger fans waiting for the opportunity to cheer you on and support you. We have a fan base that is very loyal."

The listed attendance was 81,241 – perhaps generous, based on the number of empty seats throughout the game – but one thing was noticeable: very, very few people left after ‘Jump Around' in the fourth quarter, when most people typically head home to beat traffic.

The game was tied 17-all at that point, and the fans were rewarded with the encouraging victory.

"They want to win as bad as anybody," Bielema said. "To give them the victory, not to our players and coaches, but to our fans and the people who stood behind us through the thick and the thin, I greatly appreciate it."

Game Notes

Wisconsin has now won five straight Homecoming games … 309 yards was Illinois' lowest total on the season … Williams had averaged 346 yards of total offense, tops in the Big Ten by nearly 100 yards. He had 225 yards Saturday … UW receiver David Gilreath recorded his first multi-touchdown day as a Badger, with two catching scores … tailback John Clay made his first career start and ran for 88 yards … Welch is now 14-of-16 this season, and has connected on his last 10 field-goal attempts.

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