Players of the game: Wisconsin’s offensive line
The Badgers’ front five (plus the occasional tight end or two) set the tone on the opening drive of the game. Wisconsin was going to run the ball — a lot. The Badgers’ offensive linemen got their block to the second level of the Illinois defense on a regular basis, and 391 rushing yards was the result, with both Chez Mellusi and Braelon Allen topping 100 yards on the ground and scoring one touchdown apiece.
The fact the Illini’s best “offensive” plays came via Wisconsin penalties tells the story here. Three pass-interference calls and a roughing-the-passer penalty accounted for four first downs. The 93 yards of total offense by the Illini marked the first time the program had achieved that dubious milestone since gaining 78 in a 26-0 loss at Wisconsin on Oct. 8, 1977.
Kerby Joseph saved his teammates from a failing grade. Because that’s what was coming after Wisconsin’s offense converted 7 of 13 third downs and held the ball for nearly three-fourths of Saturday’s homecoming game. Joseph had the two big defensive plays for the Illini, with his interception and fumble recovery giving him six takeaways in the last five games.
So much for Blake Hayes only having to punt once against Charlotte. The Illini super-senior punter was called upon seven times Saturday, averaged 46.6 yards per punt and pinned Wisconsin inside the 20-yard line three times. A solid effort. Not his best. In a quiet game for special teams, the Badgers’ Collin Larsh outscored Illinois by himself with one made field goal.
Yes, the Badgers boasted the top run defense in the country heading into Saturday’s game. But two straight possessions without even trying to see if you could run the ball? Bold move by Illini offensive coordinator Tony Petersen. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters didn’t have one of those halftime adjustments that had been effective the last few weeks.
Bret Bielema has stressed the importance of home games against Big Ten West opponents all season. Winning them is how divisional titles are won. That ship has sailed for the Illini. The shorter second half of their season is objectively more difficult, and Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin didn’t include much of a hint of competitiveness against a league rival.