MADISON, Wis. — It dawned, in the land of the Badger, as a cool, overcast day ... perfect for an upset.
Sometimes they come in bunches.
Hopes grew as Indiana outplayed Michigan State and led 27-17, while the Northwestern Wildcats had Penn State reeling 28-17, both games in the fourth quarter.
But these contests are 60 minutes long. Favored Michigan State and Penn State teams prevailed with strong finishes. And so did Wisconsin later on, grabbing its first lead against Illinois, 10-7, on Kyle French’s career-long 46-yard field goal with 5:53 left in the third quarter.
When the fourth quarter rolled around, and the crazy Badger fans started jumping up and down, it was all downhill. The Illini weren’t up to the task, falling 31-14 in a lopsided finish.
Like you folks at home, all of us in Camp Randall Stadium could feel it coming. Illinoisans might point to a scary moment late in the third period, when the players kneeled while UI cornerback Terry Hawthorne lay motionless after a fierce sideline tackle on 227-pound Badger fullback Derek Watt. Hawthorne gave thumbs up before being removed in an ambulance and, after tests, was able to join the team on the flight home.
But the loss of Hawthorne wasn’t the problem. It almost seemed as though the Illini, now losers of eight consecutive Big Ten games, were looking for a reason to crumble.
“I’m proud of the first half,” coach Tim Beckman said, “but when something (adversity) occurs, we have to react in a positive way. If we shank a punt, we have to respond. We can’t let it snowball.”
And that’s what happened. Suddenly, the Illini were on roller skates taking themselves backward.
Illini special teams disintegrated, first with a flubbed 10-yard punt by Justin DuVernois before the quarter turn and later in permitting a 26-yard punt return by brilliant receiver Jared Abbrederis.
That’s more punt return yards on one fourth-quarter play than the Illini have in six games. The Illini treat returns on booted balls as though they’re illegal, starting last week’s game with a muffed punt that got Penn State rolling.
Defensively, linebacker Jonathan Brown was back in form (nine tackles) and end Michael Buchanan knocked down consecutive Joel Stave passes in the second quarter. But in that devastating fourth quarter, the Illini sent up a white flag in allowing Wisconsin to go 59 yards twice, first on six plays and then on two. What appeared to be a revived UI defense simply evaporated, the Badgers rattling off 177 yards in their final four possessions.
Nathan Scheelhaase, who directed the ever-scrambling UI attack with extemporaneous moves throughout — plays didn’t always come off as called — produced 80 of his 178 aerial yards to post the UI’s second TD. But the game was beyond redemption, and Badger fans started celebrating their 20th consecutive home triumph early.
Stuck in neutral
In the postgame news conference, running back Donovonn Young pointed his finger at statistics showing him with a 1.2 average on four carries and Josh Ferguson a 1.6 average on seven carries. Neither could get started, and it was useless to try.
“We aren’t getting much movement up front,” Young understated. “We just have to depend on each other and keep our spirits up. We can’t hold onto the negatives. We wanted to prove something today, but we didn’t finish it.”
Oh, by the way, the defense gets much of the credit for the UI’s second-quarter TD. Steve Hull intercepted Stave’s errant pass and returned it 17 yards to the Badger 28. Scheelhaase, launching one of his few downfield passes, hit Ferguson for 23 and then scored on a 5-yard run.
Then the defense gave it back when Wisconsin called a screen pass on an Illini blitz, the perfect call that released James White down the sideline for a tying 62-yard scamper.
Illinois’ final TD came after the score had reached 24-7. Referring to the scrambling nature of Scheelhaase’s play, Beckman said:
“Nathan is getting a lot of pressure. He is trying to make the most of those situations. He doesn’t always have time to go to the next key, and he just tucks and goes.”
Except for two misdirection keepers that fooled the Badgers for 29 and 24 yards, Illinois had no ground game whatsoever. On the other 30 rushes, Illinois netted 53 yards. Illinois is simply being outmuscled up front by the likes of Penn State and Wisconsin, and it faces a similar test next Saturday at Michigan.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.