CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With a 0-2 record in night games on the road this season, the Wisconsin football team finally got a positive result by scoring its highest point total of the season in a 56-32 win over Illinois.
After two heart-wrenching losses in Tempe, Ariz., and Columbus, Ohio, Gary Andersen was glad to get his first road win as the Badgers’ head man at Memorial Stadium Saturday night.
“If you’re going to have any opportunity to be a great team, you have to win on the road,” Andersen said. “We’ve played some pretty good teams on the road, but I think we’re a good team also. So we were able to come in and get one today which was very important.”
Donning red helmets with the white motion “W” for the third time this season, along with the added wrinkle of black face masks, Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) came out of the gates firing, finding the end zone in its first three drives and holding Illinois (3-3, 0-2) to 12 plays in its first four drives.
James White kicked off the scoring party for the Badgers with his first of three scores on a 2-yard rush to the right side after Melvin Gordon set him up with a 28-yard sweep on the exact play he scored from 71 yards out last Saturday. White’s trip to the end zone marked the Badgers’ first touchdown on their opening drive since the second game of the season versus Tennessee Tech.
“On the road, you have to come out fast,” Gordon said. “You have to cancel out the stadium and cancel out the fans because that 12th man will kill you. So, we jumped on them quick and kept it.”
Gordon would stack up 142 rushing yards on 17 carries and three touchdowns of his own, while eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark in just seven games.
The defense did its part to help get UW off to a fast start, recovering a fumble on the Illini’s own eight-yard line after backup quarterback Aaron Bailey couldn’t handle the pitch from senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase on a blown-up trick play.
Joel Stave cashed in for Wisconsin’s third touchdown on a 2-yard pass to Brian Wozniak to open a 21-0 lead over Illinois.
It wasn’t all good news for Wisconsin when, after losing senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis in the first half of last weekend’s game against Northwestern, again lost a senior leader and heart of the defense Chris Borland late in the first quarter with a hamstring injury in his right leg.
Before Borland left the game, the Badgers held the Fighting Illini without a first down through their first four drives, other than a penalty that resulted in a first down on Illinois’ first drive.
The Illinois drive immediately following Borland’s injury resulted in five first downs and a field goal to put the Fighting Illini on the board with 10:45 left in the first half.
Once Borland was sidelined for the rest of the game, the Fighting Illini began to attack the Badgers through the air, torching Wisconsin’s secondary for 120 passing yards in three consecutive scoring drives, closing the gap to 28-17 going into halftime.
“Illinois sped things up,” redshirt senior linebacker Ethan Armstrong said. “They have a very talented offense, we knew that coming in. We knew we had to execute. We gave up a few long pass plays again, that’s something we need to correct. We can’t have the busts that we had.”
With momentum beginning to take the side of the home team entering the second half, the Badgers knew they had to score right away and responded with a nine-play, 75-yard drive that was capped off by a 3-yard White run to give Wisconsin a comfortable 35-17 lead.
“That was big,” Andersen said of Wisconsin’s second half opening touchdown. “Especially when you have a team with some momentum on the offensive side of the ball like Illinois did. The offense was powerful. They were firing on all cylinders.”
From then on Wisconsin had the game in hand, despite giving up two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including a 29-yard pass to senior wide receiver Spencer Harris who beat freshman cornerback Jakarrie Washington with 44 seconds left in the game to give the Fighting Illini 32 points on the night and matching the most points given up on the season by Wisconsin.
A bright spot on the defensive side of the ball was the play of redshirt junior middle linebacker Marcus Trotter who came in to relieve the injured Borland.
Despite not playing in nearly the entire first quarter, Trotter led the team in tackles with nine, along with a fumble recovery and a pass broken up.
“I’ve always had a dream of having a big role, especially at middle linebacker, that’s the quarterback of the defense, so I’ve always told myself just to be prepared because you never know,” Trotter said. “Every day in practice, every day in games, I always come out [and] think that I might play, so I think that mentality definitely helped me today, because I know for sure if I didn’t think that I might not have really stepped up.”