WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The race was on, and as the clock expired and Wisconsin cruised to a 38-14 victory over Purdue Saturday, the Badgers had created a sizable gap from the competition.
In pursuit of the front seat for the Big Ten Leaders Division title and locking down its first road win of the year, Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) rode the back of Montee Ball, who racked up a career-high 247 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries. He also etched his name deeper into Big Ten history, breaking former Wisconsin star Ron Dayne’s record of 71 touchdowns.
On the second snap of the latter half, the senior tailback Ball whipped out a beautiful start-and-stop move after breaking away from the line of scrimmage to score a 67-yard touchdown and make it 24-7 in the Badgers’ favor.
“About time,” Ball said postgame. “About time I woke up and started playing with my teammates.”
“It was around the second quarter,” Ball said of when he realized he was in the midst of a career game. “All we were missing these past games was energy, and we made sure to keep that going throughout this entire game.”
As a drizzle turned into a near-downpour at Ross-Ade Stadium, the Badgers’ offense followed suit, scoring three touchdowns in the final 30 minutes.
Riding Ball’s coattails was junior running back James White, who took the game’s first carries and finished with 131 yards and a touchdown, ready to give the No. 1 tailback a breather after lengthy romps through the Purdue (3-3, 0-2) defense.
And while the rebirth of Wisconsin’s running game led the offensive charge, it was redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave who helped his team recover from a rattling series of plays in the game’s opening seconds. After running back Akeem Hunt returned the opening kickoff for 44 yards, quarterback Caleb TerBush hit wide receiver Antavian Edison on a 52-yard bomb to the one-yard line.
After a TerBush keeper got the Boilermakers into the end zone, 38 seconds into the game the home team held a 7-0 lead. But Stave answered by twice hitting his favorite target — wide receiver Jared Abbrederis — on play-action passes before finding tight end Jacob Pedersen wide open for the equalizing score.
“It’s not what happens in the game, it’s how you react to what happens, and they reacted the right way,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “We didn’t like the way it unfolded, but they reacted, gave them the right response, offensively [and] defensively.”
Just before halftime Purdue looked poised to make it a single-score game, as the second member of the Boilermakers’ quarterback unit, senior Robert Marve, drove his team to the Wisconsin 32. However, a pair of sacks from UW’s top two defensive playmakers, linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, set Purdue back 23 yards.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are either seniors or have played before out there on our defense,” Borland said. “So when something goes wrong, we just look at each other and say, ‘next snap,’ and we did well doing that today.”
A pair of missed field goals from sophomore kicker Kyle French and a Ball slip on the wet grass inside the 20 — one that may have cost UW seven more points — kept the Badgers from pulling away early. But by the middle of the final quarter, UW had taken control.
Ball showed signs of the performance ahead in the second quarter, spinning and smashing his way to 93 yards in the period. And, aside from a third quarter interception, Stave turned into a game manager, completing 12 of his 21 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown.
“There’s obviously room for improvement, but I think we did take a step forward this week and I think that we showed that we can run the ball and run it very efficiently,” Stave said.
After Purdue jumped out to the early lead, any chance of a repeat drive ended when free safety Dezmen Southward found himself in perfect position for an overthrown TerBush pass.
While Southward’s first interception of the season failed to produce any points after French missed a 44-yard field goal try, Purdue was closing in on the red zone before the safety found the ball in his own gloves. And as he would explain, the misfire was a result of a Wisconsin defensive line that surrendered only 128 yards on the ground and limited TerBush to only nine yards on his six carries.
“That pick wasn’t me cutting in front of anybody or any spectacular play,” Southward said. “Our D-line got up to the quarterback, they rushed him and he threw it a little earlier than he wanted to. Their guy tipped it and it fell right into my lap.”
The Badgers’ strong defensive performance suffered a blow in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter when the No. 2 defense allowed Hunt to rush for 81 yards and Purdue’s second and final score.
But Wisconsin outdueled Purdue with 645 total offensive yards compared to the home team’s 252, and players said the win injected them with a much-needed boost of confidence.
“That was one of our goals in the game, to not just beat somebody but when we had the opportunity to put them away, just put them away,” White said. “And that’s what we did.”
Of note: Ball now leads the Big Ten with 11 touchdowns this season. He needs six more touchdowns for the NCAA record; Wisconsin’s 645 total yards of offense was the second-highest in school history; the Badgers’ 467 rushing yards were the fifth-highest total in UW history.
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