Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Sports
A look back: Illinois
By ZACH HEILPRIN
CHAMPAIGN – Each week we’ll take a look back at Wisconsin’s game and pick three positives and three negatives from it.
The following comes from the Badgers 56-32 win over Illinois on Saturday.
1) The quick starts – Wisconsin hadn’t scored on their opening drive of the game since Sept. 7 against Tennessee Tech. On Saturday night, the Badgers offense put points up on their first three possessions to take a 21-0 lead. The field position helped – they started at their own 47-yard line, their own 38-yard line and then the Illinois 8-yard line. All three resulted in touchdowns, including a 26-yard run by Melvin Gordon. When Illinois responded and cut the Badgers lead to 28-17 at halftime, the Wisconsin offense had a response of their own – scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions of the second half.
“It was big,” Gordon said of the start. “We knew we had to come out, especially on the road, you’ve got to come out fast. You’ve got to cancel out the fans because that 12th man will kill you. So we jumped on them quick. We got the momentum and we kept it. They tried to fight it and get it back but we got the ball at half and we took the momentum right back.”
2) Road win at night – It had been nearly 11 years since Wisconsin took out a Big Ten team on the road at night – a 42-24 win at Michigan State. While the environment in Champaign wasn’t the same as the other night games they’ve played in, the fact they were able to get their first road win of the Gary Andersen-era, and it happened to be at night, was huge for the team. And you could sense some of their relief afterwards, knowing they wouldn’t have to answer another question about why they can’t win on the road.
3) The offensive line – The Wisconsin line is often taken for granted but this group is continuing to take shape and has gotten better the more games they’ve played. While it doesn’t hurt for them to have Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement running behind them, the three running backs know where a lot of their success starts. After a tough game against Ohio State, the line has opened up massive holes in the running game and kept Joel Stave upright for the most part in the past two games. The fact they’ve had success with first year starters at the two most important positions – left tackle with Tyler Marz and center with Dallas Lewallen – is a credit to those guys and also offensive line coach T.J. Woods.
1) Injuries – It seems that this is always one of the negatives from a Wisconsin game and lately it’s been some big names. Against Ohio State Melvin Gordon was knocked from the game with a knee injury. Last week, it was Jared Abbrederis being forced out of the game due to a head injury. And on Saturday it was Chris Borland’s turn, injuring a hamstring while covering a punt. Luckily, like they did after their loss to the Buckeyes, the Badgers have a bye and that should allow for Borland to have some extra time to rest before a trip to take on Iowa on Nov. 2, a game the senior said he plans to be ready for. It goes without saying that Borland is the most important player on Wisconsin’s defense and perhaps on the entire team. Marcus Trotter played well in his place, he finished with nine tackles, but Borland is at a different level in terms of leadership and playmaking ability.
2) Big plays – A week after a marked improvement in not allowing big plays the defense gave up some large gains to Illinois on Saturday. The Illini offense had five big plays – passes or runs of over 20 yards – that accounted for 168 of their 391 yards. On their other 58 plays they managed just 223 yards. It was those large gains that left coaches and players disappointed with the overall performance of the defense.
“It’s the big plays that hurt us,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “It’s not rushing three or that we didn’t blitz enough. It’s the big plays. It’s the trick plays. It’s the ball down the field. And again, the other team is executing. They did a nice job. Hat goes off to Illinois for those situations but it doesn’t make it acceptable on our side. Whether we’re rushing three or blitzing, you can’t give up big plays on defense. It just gives teams momentum.”
3) The wind – Jared Abbrederis had eight catches for 106 yards but it could have been a lot more if not for the windy conditions at Memorial Stadium. Leading 21-3 in the second quarter, the Badgers went play-action on first down and Abbrederis blew past the Illini defenders, and was 10 yards clear of them when Joel Stave let go of the ball for what should have been a touchdown. Instead the ball hung up, allowing the defensive backs to recover and the ball fell to the ground. While UW coach Gary Andersen said the wind didn’t play a factor in their game plan, Stave said he wished he could have that deep ball back.
“It wasn’t it easy,” Stave said of the wind. “Looking back, I’d like to put it on a little more of a line but it happens that quick. You throw it how you’re going to throw it. I threw it out in front of him with too much air and it just got caught up there.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin