Behind a great 2nd half effort by Montee Ball the Badgers got an important 31-14 victory over Illinois as they improve to 4-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten. Wisconsin finally showed their roots in running all over the Illini in the 2nd half to put this game away after an ugly 1st half.
Head Coach Bret Bielema saw his record in Big Ten home openers improve to 6-1 and Wisconsin improved it's home winning streak to 20 games overall and 11 inside the conference.
Montee Ball found his stride after struggling early, finishing with 116 yards on 19 carries (6.1avg), as he keyed the Badgers comeback in the 2nd half with 2 touchdowns rushing. As a team the Badgers ran for 173 yards, 133 of them coming in the 2nd half.
Along with the reemergence of Ball, the announced crowd of over 80,000 saw an efficient effort from redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave. In just his 3rd start Stave finished the game 16 of 25 for 254 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.
All of those numbers and the first "blowout" of the season by Wisconsin can't hide the fact that this was far from a complete football game.
It's safe to say the first half of football, if you can call it that, between Wisconsin and Illinois was about as ugly as you could find. Penalties, bad play calling, turnovers, it had it all.
Defense ruled the day in the half as the Badgers ended four of their seven drives with punts and one ending with the half. Wisconsin's defense also came up big, forcing the Illini to punt four times themselves and also benefited from a missed field goal.
Wisconsin found rushing the ball to be tough sledding, gaining just 40 yards on 14 carries in the first half. On the other hand redshirt freshman Joel Stave would carry the offense, going 10 of 15 for 131 yards and 1TD and an INT.
Illinois made the first move of the game as they picked off Joel Stave on a 3rd and 7 play and just 2 plays and 28 yards later, Nathan Scheelhaase used his feet to blow by Chris Borland and the Badgers to put the Illini up 7-0.
The lone bright spot for Wisconsin came deep into the 2nd quarter as corner Devin Smith read Illini QB Nathan Scheelhaase's eyes well for the Badgers' 1st interception of the season.
On the ensuing offensive drive the Badgers were backed up with a 3rd and 9, but credit Matt Canada for a great play call as they went with a middle screen and thanks to some great blocking and good moves, James White went untouched for a 62 yard touchdown to tie the game up with 3:26 left in the half.
After the teams traded 3 & outs to start the 2nd half once again, things turned on a sideline pass from Stave to Derek Watt. Watt made the catch but was nailed by a vicious hit from Illini cornerback Terry Hawthorne who was assessed a 15 yard penalty and knocked himself out, leaving the field on a stretcher and in an ambulance for observation. We hope he is well and wish him a speedy recovery.
Wisconsin capitalized on the penalty and hit a 47 yard field goal for their first lead of the game at 10-7.
This game was truly a tale of two halves and thankfully it was an opportunistic Badgers team that took advantage of Illini mistakes and mishaps to blow the game open in the 2nd half.
After opening drives once again stalled out by both teams, Wisconsin began to turn the corner. With the score tied at 7 and the Badgers backed up to their own 10 yard line Wisconsin got into field goal territory and Kyle French squeaked one just inside the right upright as they took their first lead, 10-7.
It was all Wisconsin from there as they never looked back in taking it to the Illini in the half.
The two teams traded fumbles on back to back series', but after that the Badgers would take control of the game going on a 7 play 59 yard drive that ended with a 9 yard rushing TD by Montee Ball, putting the Badgers up 17-7 early into the 4th quarter.
With the touchdown the Badgers began to wear away at the defense of the Illini and they took advantage of that on the next drive as Joel Stave hooked up on what's becoming a patented deep ball to Jared Abbrederis – scoring on a 59 yard strike to make it 24-7 and really put the game out of reach.
Illinois wasn't going to go completely away though, going on a 13 play 75 yard drive that ended with a really bad breakdown by Devin Smith and a wide open Ryan Lankford in the end zone for a touchdown from Scheelhaase.
That would be the last we'd hear from the Illini as Montee Ball and the offensive line, who looked more like the old Badgers o-line, salted the game away with a great drive that ended in Ball's 2nd TD of the game from 19 yards out. The 6 play, 46 yard dive lasted 2:59 and left just 3:52 on the clock for the Illini to try and get back into the game.
It didn't happen and the Badgers earned their most impressive victory of the season, winning their Big Ten home opener for their 4th straight year. Up next for Wisconsin is a tricky road trip to Purdue next Saturday.