After their second bye week following a loss to Nebraska, Illinois welcomed the No. 25 ranked Wisconsin Badgers to Memorial Stadium for their Big Ten home opener. Badger running backs Melvin Gordon and James White lead a two-headed rushing attack for Wisconsin that entered the game fifth in the nation with 1,789 rushing yards.
It didn’t take long for Gordon to get started, as he cut it to the outside on a reverse for a 28 yard run on his first carry. Following Gordon’s run, White pounded it in for a two yard score. Wisconsin got out to an early 21-0 after scoring three touchdowns on only 14 plays and held off a late Illinois surge to hold onto a 56-32 win.
“I think offensively, we didn’t start off the way we needed to start that football game and we fell down early,” Coach Tim Beckman said. “Our team fought to the end and they tried to do what they could do to score and to stop them. I didn’t see anybody quitting or anything like that, I thought the kids played hard.”
Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase accepts the blame for the stagnant offensive start.
“I wasn’t making the plays to get us going and we just can’t start off that way,” Scheelhaase said. “We’ve gotta have more of an attack early on, we can’t have negative plays and we had those early on. When the plays there you gotta make it and I don’t think I did a very good job of that.”
Down 21-3, Scheelhaase had tall task ahead of him to get the Illini back in the game. Scheelhaase finally started to get the offense moving up the field early in the second using the short passing game and his own legs to advance the ball.
Scheelhaase rolled out on what looked to be a designed quarterback run, tricking the Wisconsin secondary as he launched a 51 yard pass to senior wide out Steve Hull.
Hull caught for a career-high 105 yards on the night.
After Wisconsin muffed a couple of Donovonn Young runs, sophomore running back Josh Ferguson sprinted in for a one yard touchdown. Illinois trailed 21-10 with 6:38 left in the half.
Wisconsin quickly fought off the Illini comeback as they once again found rhythm.
Sophomore quarterback Joel Stave threw a 29 yard pass to senior tight end Jacob Peterson, with Gordon running the ball in for a score on the next play.
Wisconsin coach Gary Anderson has been amazed with the play of Gordon all season long.
“He still wows me every single week,” Anderson said. “There is a run or two every single week. Both he and James [White] are special running backs. For Melvin to get over 1,000 yards is very impressive and I know he is excited about getting that done.”
Gordon rushed for 142 yards and three touchdowns on the night.
With one drive left in the first half, Scheelhaase found senior wide receiver Ryan Langford on the sideline for a 39 yard pass. The catch brought Illinois to the WISC 4.
Illinois brought in change of pace quarterback Aaron Bailey, who is usually utilized as short yardage runner, only this time Bailey used his arm.
Bailey found junior tight end Matt LaCosse in the back of the end zone for his first career touchdown pass. Illinois trailed 28-17 heading into the locker room.
With the Fighting Illini closing in, Wisconsin fell back on their running attack. After a 15 yard run by Gordon, White caught a screen pass and juked the Illini’s Earnest Thomas out of his socks on his way to a 30 yard scamper.
Stave would find White for a 3 yard touchdown to finish off the drive.
White finished with 98 yards and two touchdowns on the ground and 29 yards and a touchdown receiving.
On the following Wisconsin drive, Gordon would add another 21 rushing yards, including a 13 yard cutback score. Wisconsin lead 42-17 with just under six minutes left in the third.
After a ten yard holding penalty against Wisconsin, Scheelhaase connected with LaCosse on a 29 yard pass.
With Illinois set up at the goal line on a fourth and one, Bailey got the snap once again, trucking his way for what was initially called a touchdown. After review, Bailey was ruled down short of the end zone, handing the ball over to the Badgers.
Later in the fourth quarter, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit drew up another one of his trick plays with the Illini down big, as Ferguson flipped the ball back to Scheelhaase on a flea flicker. Scheelhaase found Lankford and couldn’t connect, but pass interference was called against Wisconsin.
Two plays later, Scheelhaase ran the ball for 19 yards, followed by a 15 yard screen pass to Martize Barr. Scheelhaase would run it in for a one yard score, and a successful two-point conversion cut the Illini deficit to 42-25 with 11:38 left in the game.
A 54 yard kick return by the Badger’s Kenzel Doe White would give the Badgers another touchdown, sealing the victory for Wisconsin.
“I thought we beat ourselves,” Illinois defensive end Tim Kynard said. “We didn’t lose that game because it was Wisconsin, we lost because we didn’t execute. Missed tackles, missed assignments, all that stuff builds up and then at the end we didn’t get the win.”
The loss wasn’t the only concern for Illinois, as star returner and starting cornerback V’Angelo Bentley left the game in the first quarter with a leg injury.
“It’s a big loss,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “V’Angelo started most of the games and he was started to make some headway, we thought he was getting better. But it’s next man in mentality. Next guy gotta come in and you gotta execute. No one’s gonna feel sorry for us everyone has guys that aren’t playing right now, we’re no different.”
The final score was lopsided, but with 32 points Illinois matched the highest points scored against Wisconsin this season.
Illinois has lost 16 consecutive Big Ten games and will face Michigan State next week.
At 3-3, Illinois is three wins short of bowl eligibility with six games remaining.
“We’ve got to remember that this is halfway through the season,” Beckman said. “We’re 3-3 at the halfway point, we’ve got six Big Ten games left, and we know right now that it’s like going in at half 0-0. We’re tied.”
At halftime, Illinois has their work cut out for them.