Illinois had to have had just about the worst Madison experience possible Saturday. An away game versus a ranked opponent on their homecoming weekend where the score ballooned exponentially sounds miserable right? Well, it also snowed. Hard.
— Badger Herald Sports (@BHeraldSports) October 20, 2018
Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten), hosted Illinois (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) in their own midwestern torture chamber, less aggressively known as Camp Randall Stadium. Extreme weather games always seem to carry that extra allure, so what began as a relatively unremarkable matchup became must-watch Saturday afternoon television. It’s basic math really; football + slippery snow = an immediately more exciting game.
Weather aside, the football itself was fantastic — the blizzard merely accentuated a terrific Badger effort. The team’s first two drives yielded touchdowns: a one-yard goal line rush from fullback Alec Ingold and a 23-yard, first career rushing touchdown from wide receiver Aron Cruickshank.
Linebacker T.J. Edwards, a notoriously formidable and pro-ready defenseman, somehow accessed an extra boost of athleticism to accompany the bewildering weather. During Illinois’ opening drive, Edwards, playing the spy, stepped in front of quarterback A.J. Bush’s pass, flipping possession and recording only the team’s fourth interception all year. Fellow linebacker Chris Orr would join his teammate in the turnover effort two drives later, securing a loose ball for a fumble recovery amid the swirling snow.
Wisconsin would, unfortunately, fail to capitalize on the Orr recovery, apparently, a hard-thrown spiral is harder to secure when your hands are slick and your vision is blurred. As such, a number of open receivers saw the ball sail through their waiting hands. Wisconsin would punt on three of their next four drives as their ability to convert third downs disappeared.
Kicker Rafael Gaglianone had a chance to permanently stamp his name into the Wisconsin record books as their all-time leader in field goals made, but his 27-yard attempt midway through the second quarter sailed right. The theme of football being more difficult in the snow would continue with the miss.
The lull in Wisconsin momentum seemed to drone on endlessly — it felt as though the Badgers were destined for another down-to-the-wire finish. But forced turnovers, the ever-illusive luxury every defense dreams of, would make their long-awaited appearance. For a secondary which has struggled mightily to keep pace with opposing receivers and mobile quarterbacks, three interceptions at the conclusion of the first half was an early winter miracle.
One such interception came at the hands of tackle Olive Sagapolu, a fan-favorite personality and team-favorite competitor alike. Sagapolu deflected a Bush pass directly into his arms, flipping the field and delighting the Madison crowd.
The turnover would initiate Wisconsin’s shortest drive of the afternoon. Alex Hornibrook, under immense pressure which he notoriously handles poorly, launched a rainbow to the corner of the end zone as an Illinois defenseman drove directly into the quarterback’s chest. For those who have seen Hornibrook throw under pressure in the past, one can only imagine the atmosphere in the stadium was … tense. But ever-faithful tight end Jake Ferguson awaited the pass with graciously open arms, hauling in Hornibrook’s first touchdown of the afternoon.
The ensuing Illinois drive would yield a fifth turnover of the first half, this time a forced fumble. Hornibrook would find tight end Kyle Penniston, primarily a run blocker, alone in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown, widening the Badger lead to 21.
A first half garbage time Illinois field goal would shave a slight margin of the Badger lead, but Wisconsin headed into the locker room the proud owners of a comfortable 28-10 lead.
Out of the half, it was Illinois’ turn to profit off of untimely turnovers. Hornibrook’s pass was tipped into the air for that unnerving one to two seconds where the crowd’s collective breath ceased. Into the arms of the Illinois defense, it would land, setting up an eventual 18-yard rushing touchdown.
Wisconsin would counter with a drive chock-full of big plays. Running back Jonathan Taylor picked up 13 on a pivotal second and long, Hornibrook nailed wide receiver Danny Davis down the sideline for 22 yards which was immediately followed by an absurd Taiwan Deal score.
Deal made first contact with the offensive line and was stopped dead in his tracks, surely he’d only pick up a yard at best. As if by divine intervention, the seas parted and Deal was gifted with 39 yards of open field and a touchdown.
A quick Illinois punt served up another Wisconsin scoring drive, this time at the hands of Alec Ingold who found the end zone for the second time. After six straight rushing plays, Hornibrook found Kendric Pryor across the middle for 12 yards and Ingold down the sideline for 19 yards and a score. Hornibrook racked up three touchdowns on the afternoon, a strong showing for a quarterback coming off his worst performance of the season last week versus Michigan.
The game from there on out took a rather familiar form. On defense, Wisconsin made quick work any Illinois scoring opportunities, flipping the field in no time at all. While Illinois drives were strung out, Wisconsin drives gobbled up clock ferociously. Each handoff was followed by an identical successor, and before you could say “Wait, Champaign Illinois isn’t spelled like the drink?” Wisconsin was deep inside the red zone.
Deal would find the end zone once again, recording the fourth Wisconsin rushing touchdown of the afternoon, none of which were claimed by Taylor. The Heisman hopeful did record 159 yards on 27 carries. Deal, however, stole the show Saturday, posting far and away from his strongest stat line all season with 111 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.
Wisconsin headed home content, annihilating Illinois 49-20. The Badgers travel to Evanston, IL next week to face Northwestern in a game riddled with Big Ten West implications.