The No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers (3-1 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) came into Saturday’s game with the Illinois Fighting Illini (1-3, 3-4) without their top three safeties — D’Cota Dixon, Scott Nelson and Reggie Pearson — and without top defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk. That proved to be no problem for the defense, as Jim Leonhard’s crew had five takeaways in the first half, leading to 21 points for the Badgers en route to a 49-20 win.
UW started the game in typical Wisconsin style — pounding the ball on the ground. Sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor ran five times for 24 yards, while fellow tailbacks Taiwan Deal and Garrett Groshek added 32 yards. Senior fullback Alec Ingold punched in a one-yard touchdown, giving UW an early 7-0 lead.
Senior linebacker T.J. Edwards intercepted AJ Bush Jr.’s third pass of the day, setting up UW’s offense at Illinois’ 25-yard line. Freshman receiver Aron Cruickshank took Wisconsin’s second play 23 yards to the house on a jet sweep, giving UW a quick 14-0 lead.
After a pair of punts from the two sides to close out the first quarter, mother nature decided to bring some early snow to Madison. What was supposed to be a cold, windy afternoon quickly turned into a blizzard, with snow swirling around Camp Randall.
That snow proved to be damaging for the Illini, as freshman linebacker Jack Sanborn punched the ball loose from Reggie Corbin’s grasp. When Illinois next got the ball, redshirt senior safety Evan Bondoc picked off Bush Jr. for his first career interception in his first career start. The Badgers were unable to capitalize on those two turnovers. Wisconsin was forced to punt after Hornibrook overthrew A.J. Taylor following Corbin’s fumble, and Rafael Gaglianone missed a 27-yard field goal following Bondoc’s interception.
Bush Jr. briefly made it a game, as he broke free for an 80-yard touchdown on the Illini’s first play following the missed field goal — the second week in a row UW has given up a run of 80 yards or more.
The Badger defense quickly made sure that 14-7 would be the closest Illinois would come, as they forced turnovers on the next two Illinois drives. Olive Sagapolu deflected, then intercepted a pass from M.J. Rivers, who replaced Bush Jr. in the second quarter. Alex Hornibrook made a beautiful throw to find Jake Ferguson in the back corner of the end zone for 27 yards immediately following the interception.
On Illinois’ second play following Ferguson’s touchdown, sophomore safety Eric Burrell forced a fumble on Corbin, his second fumble of the afternoon, and Rachad Wildgoose was there to recover. After an 11-yard run from Taylor and 13-yard catch from sophomore receiver Danny Davis, Hornibrook found tight end Kyle Penniston wide open in the end zone following a play action. Penniston did well to sell his block, then ran free into the end zone for his first touchdown of the year.
Following a quick Illinois punt, Hornibrook was intercepted as the Badgers were caught trying to extend their lead before halftime. There appeared to be miscommunication between Hornibrook, Danny Davis, and A.J. Taylor, as Hornibrook’s pass floated easily into Stanley Green, who returned it 49 yards. Chase McLaughlin connected on a 53 yard field goal, cutting the Badgers’ lead to 28-10 going into halftime.
After a quick Illini punt, Hornibrook threw another bad interception, this time to Jimmy Marchese. Illinois capitalized on a 18-yard touchdown run by RaVon Bonner, cutting the lead to 28-17.
As the snow stopped swirling and the sun started to peek through the clouds, the Badgers’ offense squeezed any signs of life out of Illinois in the second half.
Two touchdown drives quickly put the game out of reach for the Illini. After a 13-yard run by Taylor and 22-yard catch from Davis, Taiwan Deal somehow escaped a scrum at the line of scrimmage and scampered 39 yards for a touchdown. Another Illinois three and out set up the Badgers at their own 44. Six runs for 35 yards set up a 19-yard touchdown catch for Ingold, extending UW’s lead to 42-17 late in the third quarter.
Trailing 42-17 on the Badgers’ eight yard line, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith elected to kick a field goal on fourth-and-three to cut the lead to 42-20. The Badgers answered with an 11-play, 86-yard touchdown drive, capped off by a six yard run from Deal to make the score 49-20.
Danny Vanden Boom entered the game for Hornibrook for the last five minutes, as Wisconsin’s reserves ran out the clock in garbage time.