Maybe it was those all-orange uniforms (burn ’em). Maybe it was getting accustomed to night vision or the chillier winds ... but, as we all know, it was the precision and physicality of Wisconsin’s Badgers.
Outclassed from the start, Tim Beckman’s Illini found themselves trailing 21-0 before they regained their equilibrium Saturday night. To their credit, they created some excitement for the crowd of 47,362 with an aerial assault that cut the halftime lead to 28-17 and kept on producing yards.
But the Badgers returned from the midway breather to do what they do, overpowering the Illini and coasting to a 56-32 victory. The twin daggers, James White and Melvin Gordon, banged their way for 240 yards before stepping aside, while the Illini needed some late runs to reach 72 yards on the ground.
If anybody asks about those two Badger streakers, “They went thataway ... and they’d still be running if the gun hadn’t sounded.”
You might say Illinois won the touch football portion of the game, accumulating 319 yards in the air. But as we see, the Big Ten is a physical league, and Wisconsin is at its best in ground-assault, tackle football.
When will it end?
In those demoralizing early stages of the first and third quarters, the gnawing question swirled through the Memorial Stadium stands: Will the Big Ten losing streak, which reached 16, end this season?
Maybe, just maybe, it could happen if the Illini stopped shooting themselves in the foot. Two of Saturday’s first three possessions immediately backfired due to a (1) a low-block, 15-yard penalty that nullified a screen pass gainer and (2) a fumbled reverse that handed the ball to Wisconsin on the 8-yard line.
Mistakes aren’t acceptable against a team that seldom makes them. Wisconsin lays claim to having the nation’s fewest turnovers since 2010, giving up 14 fumbles and 17 interceptions in 48 games (none Saturday). In that span, they’ve taken the ball away 66 times.
But we’re kidding ourselves to think the Illini can win with the quality of defense they’re presenting. It just isn’t good enough.
Oct. 5 was undeniably Northwestern’s biggest home game in years: Homecoming vs. Ohio State. Some called it Evanston’s “Super Bowl,” the date circled well in advance and unleashing deep emotions ... a heavy-handed commitment that led to, as it turned out, a heartbreaking defeat and a head-splitting hangover.
The post-loss letdown resembled a sputtering auto trying to run with the gas gauge on empty. The Wildcats barely put up a fight in the 35-6 loss to Wisconsin, and were outplayed 20-17 by Minnesota on Saturday.
It wouldn’t be fair to Pat Fitzgerald’s team to overlook injuries, particularly those that kept Kain Colter and Venric Mark on the sidelines Saturday. But yes, Louise, it really is an emotional game, and Northwestern appeared numbed from the moment James Manuel returned an INT for a 14-7 Gopher lead.
From the Illini standpoint, spiraling Northwestern no longer appears to be beyond reach.
On deck: Sparty
Purdue, the Illini opponent targeted as the most beatable, appeared to grow horns against Michigan State in a 14-0 loss.
The Spartans remain — because of their defense — the Leaders Division team with the best chance of defeating Ohio State in the Big Ten playoff. But their erratic offense could leave them vulnerable here next weekend if the Illini can turn it into touch football.
— Shahid Khan, international auto parts magnate who has made major contributions to the UI and the DIA, hasn’t lost interest in the Illini while concentrating his athletic interests in the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Fulham soccer team (which he purchased for $319 million). Mike Thomas, Illini AD, was Khan’s guest in Denver last weekend and will travel to Jacksonville for an NFL game later on.
— Illinois was willing to resume football relations with Missouri, but the Tigers’ SEC obligations prevented it. Maybe it’s a good thing. The Tigers outgained Florida 500-151 and coasted 36-17. Whoever heard of a 7-0 SEC team not in the Top 10?
— You can be sure that coach Bret Beilema, who left Wisconsin for Arkansas, misses the Illini. His Razorbacks have lost five straight, the last four SEC games by margins of 12, 20, 45 and 52 (by Alabama).
— Insiders claim that Ron Zook, who was ready to serve with Jon Gruden at Tennessee before Gruden rejected the job, will seek the Miami (Ohio) head coaching position, as will another former UI coach, Eric Wolford of Youngstown State.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.