CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It didn’t take long for the Wisconsin football team (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) to build up an insurmountable lead against Illinois (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten) Saturday night as Wisconsin jumped out to a 21-0 lead on its first three drives before stealing a 56-32 win away from home.
However, while the UW offense was firing on all cylinders, the defense suffered a number of hiccups throughout the game that allowed Illinois to rack up 32 points — the second most Wisconsin has allowed this season — and 319 yards through the air.
“We’re going to have to be better than that on defense,” head coach Gary Andersen said. “You have to give a lot of credit to Illinois, they are hard to stop … We had too many mental breakdowns … and we can correct [those mistakes].
Through the first seven games in 2013, Wisconsin has developed a reputation as a team that makes big plays — particularly on pass plays from redshirt sophomore quarterback Joel Stave to senior wide out Jared Abbrederis — but Saturday night it was Illinois that made the big plays through the air.
During the night, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase torched the Badgers to the tune of 249 yards alone, completing the night’s longest pass for 51 yards.
That pass — with Illinois trailing Wisconsin 21-3 in the first half — gave the Illini a glimmer of hope when, three plays later, Illinois had reduced the Badgers’ lead to 11 with 6:38 left in the second quarter.
Junior cornerback Peniel Jean said while the team is happy about the way it preformed in its first road win of the season, giving up these kinds of plays in the future could be much more costly.
“They had three, four big plays which accumulated to like 330 yards,” Jean said. “They should have only had like 200 yards of offense. We take away those plays and it would have been a great game.”
Beyond the secondary’s weaknesses giving up big plays Saturday night, the Wisconsin defense as a whole gave up eight penalties for 93 yards.
“There were a couple miscues that we had,” redshirt sophomore Darius Hillary said. “We have to look at film, learn from it and then correct it. We have the bye week this upcoming week, so it would be the perfect time to correct those mistakes and move on.”
Even though the Badgers allowed 32 points on the night, they started the game strong — forcing the Illini to punt on their first four possessions.
Saturday’s win was the third time this season Wisconsin has given up 31 points or more to its opponent on the road, but the first time it has come home victorious in that scenario.
Wisconsin’s slow deterioration of defense closely followed the loss of senior linebacker Chris Borland, who was forced to leave the game in the second quarter with a hamstring injury. Redshirt junior Marcus Trotter filled in while he was out and led the Badgers with nine tackles.
While the injury is not serious and it is likely he will return when Wisconsin takes the field against Iowa Nov. 2 in Iowa City, it may have revealed a new concern for a team that has depended on youth in a number of spots on defense this year.
Andersen rejected the idea that the team struggled without its leader on the field for much of the game, but said if that was the case it is something that will need to be remedied quickly as the season moves on and Wisconsin tries to claw its way back into the Big Ten Championship picture.
“It’s possible [not having Borland] hurt us,” Andersen said. “I thought Trotter played well. There are a lot of packages going on … with Illinois. That is part of their scheme and they do a good job with it, and you have to react on defense in a positive way.”
Gordon reaches milestone
As Illinois gave Wisconsin trouble through the air, Wisconsin ran the 102nd-ranked defense in the country ragged to the tune of 289 yards and seven touchdowns.
Redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon played no small part in that attack in a milestone day for the second-year player.
He finished with 142 yards on only 17 carries which was good enough to put him over 1,000 yards rushing in 2013 — the first time that he has done so in his brief career as a Badger.
For Gordon, the chance to reach the 1,000-yard mark was a special moment for him in his coming-of-age as a college football running back.
“It’s pretty cool,” Gordon said. “Coach always gave me crap about it in the offseason. It’s a good mark to have, but [those personal milestones] aren’t really what I’m focused on.”
With Gordon reaching the milestone Saturday, at least one Wisconsin running back has done so each season going back to 2005. Gordon sits tied with former running back P.J. Hill as the fastest to the milestone, needing only seven games and 107 carries to complete the task.