After letting a 17-point lead evaporate last weekend against Nebraska, the Wisconsin Badgers football team (1-1 Big Ten, 4-2 overall) had put itself in a must-win situation as it came into its Big Ten home opener Saturday against Illinois (0-2 Big Ten, 2-4 overall).
With their backs against the wall, the Badgers had arguably their most complete performance of the season.
Despite a lackluster start offensively, the Badgers’ defense held down the fort and ultimately wore down the Illini en route to a 31-14 victory.
“If we just can line up and play and make them earn every inch, they are going to be hard to score on,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “We just have too many good athletes.”
Although an early interception thrown by freshman quarterback Joel Stave gave Illinois the game’s first score, the Wisconsin defense continued to make big stop after big stop, keeping the Badgers ahead in the game despite their struggles on the offensive side of the ball.
“You never want to let their offense put points on the board and get out to a lead,” Wisconsin senior linebacker Mike Taylor said. “We go out there with the mindset of keeping them off the board.”
Ultimately, it was the defensive unit that was responsible for turning the tide in the Badgers’ favor late in the first half.
With the Illini already leading and poised to add on, Wisconsin senior defensive back Devin Smith sniffed out a third down pass attempt from Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhause, intercepting the pass and waking up an otherwise non-existent Camp Randall crowd.
While continuing to follow through on their “bend but don’t break” mantra, the UW defense added another wrinkle to their effort on Saturday, finally coming up with the big plays that had seemingly been missing in the first five games of the season.
“It was a big play,” UW junior linebacker Chris Borland said of the interception, Wisconsin’s first of the season. “We need to start coming up with more of those plays to help our offense and change the momentum.”
The Badgers knotted the score on the ensuing drive with a 62-yard screen pass from Stave to UW junior running back James White, turning the momentum in their favor for good.
“It helped swing the momentum in our direction right before halftime,” White said of the touchdown, his first career touchdown reception. “They had momentum for the majority of the first half.”
After the tough start to the season the Badgers have endured, head coach Bret Bielema told his players to start having fun playing the game they love.
“I made a special appeal to our guys to just have some fun,” Bielema said. “We work way too hard and put in too many hours, not to enjoy ourselves. To win football games and have fun doing it.”
While the first half looked to be anything but fun for Wisconsin, that joy definitely came through as the offense finally awoke from hibernation to put the Illini away in the second half.
“The game we played today was spurred by enjoying ourselves,” Borland added. “I saw more smiles, more excitement and I think that was part of why we performed well.”
Wisconsin now heads on the road to face Purdue in a game that is likely to determine which team will represent the leaders division in the Big Ten Championship game.
Having endured plenty of adversity early on, the Badgers now hope the complete effort they had Saturday marks the beginning of yet another conference championship run.
“I think we are headed in the right direction,” Borland said. “Its well within our reach.”