Photo: Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Sports
Melvin Gordon ran for three scores in Wisconsin's convincing win over Illinois.
Badgers 56, Illini 32: All night
By ZACH HEILPRIN
CHAMPAIGN - They talked about it before the Arizona State game. They talked about it before the Ohio State game. On Saturday night against Illinois (3-3, 0-2), they did it. The University of Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) won a night game on the road – and they did it convincingly, 56-32 at Memorial Stadium.
“If you’re going to have any opportunity to be a great team, you’ve got to win on the road,” said Gary Andersen, who picked up his first road win as UW’s head coach. “That’s really what I talked to them about. But it was important for them to find a way to get (a win) on the road. We played some pretty good teams on the road. I believe we’re a good team also. We were able to come in today and get one, which was very important.”
Yes, the conditions were not the same as the last five times they lost a night game on the road. Only 47,362 fans were in attedance, a stark contrast to the 105,000 they faced in Columbus last month. Nor did they have to deal with 98-degree weather at kickoff and a Pac-12 referee crew like they did in Tempe earlier this year. Instead, it was 48 degrees at kickoff and a crew of Big Ten officials managed to throw 13 flags, including eight on the Badgers.
Still, the win served as Wisconsin's first night win on the road in the conference since they beat Michigan State in 2002. And it snapped their overall losing streak on the road at three.
“Yeah, it was big for us,” said quarterback Joel Stave, who finished the night 16 of 21 for 189 yards and two touchdowns. “It seems like all I’ve really been playing is road, night games. Even back to last year. It’s good. It’s great to get a win on the road no matter what, but in a big environment like this, it’s fun.”
The Badgers got off to a fast start scoring a touchdown on their opening drive of the game, the first time they did that since the second week of the season against Tennessee Tech. Wisconsin went 53 yards in five plays, and James White finished it off with a 2-yard score.
After the Wisconsin defense forced a three-and-out, the Badgers went right back down the field and put another touchdown on the board, this time on a 26-yard run by Melvin Gordon.
A fumble by Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase on a reverse, and a recovery by defensive end Ethan Hemer, gave Wisconsin first-and-goal at the 8-yard line. Three plays later, tight end Brian Wozniak caught a 2-yard pass from Stave for the score and a 21-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the game.
But things shifted when linebacker Chris Borland suffered a hamstring injury while covering a punt. In the four series he played, the Illini offense ran 12 plays for negative 11 yards. The next three series, they ran 22 plays for 186 yards and scored 17 points.
“Does it hurt to lose Chris, absolutely,” Andersen said. “He's the best linebacker in the country, and I will say it again and again. We need to get him back and get him where he needs to be. If we let [Borland's injury] deflate us, we need to mature and not let that happen."
Marcus Trotter replaced Borland and ended up leading the team in tackles with nine, while also recovering a fumble in the fourth quarter.
“I think Trotter did a great job,” Borland said of his replacement. “It’s a difficult thing to step in cold turkey like that and he didn’t miss a beat. He’s right in on all the calls and I thought he performed well.”
Wisconsin’s early 21-0 lead was trimmed to 28-17 at halftime. Sensing the complete momentum shift, the Badgers offense rallied in the locker room and came out in the second half on fire. They went 75 yards in nine plays on their first drive of the half, and finished it off with a 3-yard touchdown pass to James White.
“We put a lot of emphasis on that coming out of halftime,” Stave said. “We got to score. We got to score now. We knew that was a big time for us. And to be able to put together a big drive, move it down the field and then (get) the touchdown was very important.”
The Wisconsin defense forced a three-and-out and the Badgers offense went back to work, going 65 yards in just five plays, with Gordon going in from 13 yards out.
“It was big because momentum was turning around,” said Gordon, who finished with 142 yards and three touchdowns. “They were trying to get back into the game. But we knew. We went into the locker room. We knew were getting the ball back. We said were going to drive down and score, and that’s what we did.”
Gordon went over 1,000 yards on the season, tying P.J. Hill (2006) for the fewest games (7) to get to that mark.
“He still wows me every single week,” Andersen said. There is a run or two every single week. Bot he and James (White) are special running backs. For Melvin to get over 1,000 yards very impressive and I know he is excited about getting that done.”
White finished with 98 yards on the ground and another 29 receiving.
Jared Abbrederis, who was knocked out of the Northwestern game last week with a head injury, caught eight passes for 106 yards. It was the third time he went over the 100-yard plateau this season and the ninth time in his career.
Jacob Pedersen was involved in the passing game for a second straight week, finishing with three catches for 47 yards, including a brilliant grab that led to a Badgers touchdown. Pedersen liked the way the team started and the way they responded when Illinois made their comeback attempt.
“That’s huge,” Pedersen said. “You want to do that every single game. When you start slow you let them stay in the game. I thought we took their crowd out of it right way. We kind of let them get back in but I thought we answered."
Wisconsin put up 478 yards of total offense against the Illini and won back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time since the middle of last October.
“We’ve got to keep the momentum the rest of the season," Pedersen said. "We’ve got to be able to do this every game. We can’t just have it be against Illinois. We’ve got to have it every game the rest of the way.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin