BY JEFF BERNIER
Despite missing their star tailback Corey Clement for a seventh straight game and losing their senior quarterback Joel Stave in the first quarter, the Wisconsin Badgers were able to grind out another victory; this time on the road versus a much improved Illinois Fighting Illini team by a score of 24-13.
It took some time before the first points flashed up on the scoreboard in Champagne. The Fighting Illini received the game’s opening kickoff. They would punt shortly thereafter.
The Badgers would go three and out on their first possession. The Illinois’ defensive line flexed their muscle early and often, getting into the backfield with relative ease. They got to Badgers quarterback Joel Stave repeatedly, knocking him down, and forcing rushed throws.
Mike Phair, Illinois’ new co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach has made a huge impact on this Fighting Illini squad. Phair has been able to focus his guys game in and game out; a defensive group that includes some NFL quality talent.
After one more punt apiece, the Fighting Illini were finally able to convert a drive into points. A sloppy 9 play, 18 yard drive by Illinois was capped with a 37 yard field goal by senior kicker Taylor Zalewski.
A few more hits on Stave by a possessed Fighting Illini front line was all it took for them to knock the Badgers senior play-caller out of the game with what appeared to be a concussion. The Badgers training staff took away Stave’s helmet on the sidelines as they walked him to the locker room.
The Badgers season now rested on the right arm of junior backup quarterback Bart Houston who, until today, had never thrown a pass in conference play in his collegiate career. Houston, at 6’4” 228 pounds was certainly ready for his number to be called Saturday.
Having just come in for the injured Stave, Houston and the Badgers were facing a third down and 9 from the Illini 23 yard line. Houston, with a quick three step drop, floated a beauty of a throw to the right corner near the pylon to junior wide-out Robert Wheelwright. Wheelwright, who hauled the pass in while being able to turn up field just enough to dive and break the plane, made it 7-3 Wisconsin.
The spectacular effort from Wheelwright continued a trend of elite athleticism for the junior. It also was his fourth touchdown reception on the season, which leads the Badgers. Wisconsin would later lose Wheelwright to an injury. He did not return for the Badgers.
A 26 yard field goal by Rafael Gaglianone with 7:03 remaining in the half set the half time score in Wisconsin’s favor, 10-7.
The Badgers missed a golden opportunity to push the lead heading into halftime. Houston was picked off by Illinois sophomore cornerback Eaton Spence in the end zone with just 33 seconds remaining.
The Badgers started the second half with two punts, unable to get their makeshift offense in gear. On the Fighting Illini’s second possession of the final half, they broke through the Badgers stout defense.
Illinois’ junior quarterback Wes Lunt found his rhythm. He completed passes of 16, 15, and 19 yards. The 5 play 86 yard drive was capped by freshman tailback Ke’Shawn Vaugh on an impressive 36 yard sprint right up the gut. Vaugh is filling in at running back for Illinois while their star running back, Josh Ferguson, continues to recover from a shoulder injury.
The Fighting Illini wouldn’t enjoy their third quarter lead for long. The Badgers came right back on the next drive and scored on an Alec Ingold 2 yard touchdown run, making it 17-13 Wisconsin. From there, the Badgers would not look back.
Wisconsin capped the day’s scoring with another touchdown, this time it was Houston connecting with senior wide receiver Alex Erickson on the Badgers very next possession. The 9 yard pass and catch play came on third down and goal from the Illinois 9.
Wisconsin continued their resurgence on third down efficiency, which has been a point of emphasis lately for head coach Paul Chryst. The Badgers finished the game a healthy 9/16 on the critical down.
The Badgers again struggled to run the ball with efficiency. Senior #1 wide receiver Alex Erickson was unquestionably the player of the game, doing a little bit of everything for the Badgers’ offense. Erickson saved the ground game for Wisconsin too on Saturday, rushing for 81 yards on 4 carries. Erickson also hauled in 10 catches for 96 yards and that capper score.
Bart Houston, who was thrust into action following the Stave concussion, performed very well, leading the Badgers offense on many crucial drives in the second half. Houston finished the game 22/33 for 232 yards with two touchdowns. Houston had two interceptions, but they did not hurt the Badgers chances Saturday.
Illinois’ quarterback Wes Lunt had a quiet but decent day, finishing with 278 yards and a pick. He and Illinois just weren’t able to convert in the red zone, the few times they got deep into Badgers’ territory.
Badgers’ senior safety Michael Caputo picked off Lunt for his second interception on the season.
Fighting Illini safety Clayton Fejedelem had a monster day for Illinois, helping keep the game closer than it maybe should have been. The junior finished the game with 19 tackles and an interception.
The Badgers will head back home next weekend for a matchup against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (3-3) on Halloween night in Madison, Wisconsin. The game kicks off at 11:00 am Central.