MADISON, Wis. — It was simple calculus for Tarique Barnes.
Loose ball on the field? Scoop and score.
So while the Wisconsin offense stood around like the play had been whistled dead — it hadn’t — Barnes pounced on the football after Illinois safety Sydney Brown knocked it loose from Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson and it squirted backward free from the growing pile of players on the ground.
A 39-yard return, and Barnes had the first touchdown of his Illinois career. That it was the only touchdown Illinois would score in Friday’s season opener at No. 14 Wisconsin in a 45-7 loss proved to be the only problem.
“Once it hits the ground, we’re going to pick it up anyway,” Barnes said about recovering the fumble no Wisconsin player seemed to actively pursue. “Scoop and score is the first thing we go for.”
Barnes made the most of what turned out to be extend playing Friday night after redshirt senior middle linebacker and team captain Jake Hansen exited the game in the first half after taking a blow to the head. Hansen was seriously unsteady, fell down once after initially trying to stand and needed to be helped off the field.
“You can take some big hits, and at the moment there it can look pretty bad,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “I know Jake is fine right now. Those things can happen in a game. We kept him out, of course, the rest of the football game.
“He’s not a guy that’s had a whole lot of concussions. We’ll kind of see how it goes this week. A player’s health is at the forefront of everything that we do. He won’t be coming back out there, of course, until he’s good to go health-wise.”
Barnes wound up leading Illinois with 11 tackles against Wisconsin. The sophomore linebacker also had a sack and 11/2 tackles for loss.
“The mindset is always be ready when your name is called,” Barnes said. “Honestly, it did take me a little bit by surprise, but I felt at that point it was my time.”
Barnes certainly caught Smith’s attention with his play against the Badgers.
“We have to acknowledge Tarique coming in,” Smith said. “That’s a tough situation. Jake Hansen is a captain, one of our best players. When you’re a backup, you don’t get as many reps, but you have to be ready mentally. … He had a sack. He had a takeaway with a touchdown. You have to acknowledge that. It’s good to see him do it, and we needed him to at the time.”
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The necessity to pull Hansen from the game in the first half added to Illinois’ defensive personnel issues.
Linebacker Milo Eifler was unavailable in the first half because of a targeting-related suspension from last December’s Redbox Bowl, and both defensive end Isaiah Gay and cornerback Devon Witherspoon — both projected starters — were ruled out for Friday’s game about one hour before kickoff without a reason given.
“Those are both guys that have helped us win a lot of games,” Smith said. “They’re good football players. Yeah, we missed them.”
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Illinois’ offensive struggles Friday night meant just 218 total yards of offense. Only 87 of those yards came in the passing game, and few of the chances went to the Illini tight ends.
Daniel Barker was targeted three times and caught two passes for 15 yards. Luke Ford, making his Illini debut after sitting out the 2019 season after his transfer from Georgia, was targeted just once. New Southern California transfer Daniel Imatorbhebhe didn’t even play.
“We’ve got to be able to get the ball to our tight ends more,” Smith said.
In full agreement with that notion would be Ford’s dad, Tim, who was rather active on social media throughout Friday night’s game.
“Everyone texting me this tonight, ‘It’s time to consider the portal (because) you have three (years) left (especially because) they promised to use (tight ends) and only one pass bounced off ground into a double coverage,’” Tim Ford tweeted, referencing his son’s lone target. “Does make me think a father son sit down coming. Offense was atrocious.”
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Camp Randall Stadium was empty for Friday’s Big Ten opener. Crowd noise was pumped in, but it certainly wasn’t the same.
“It was just quiet,” Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters said.
“It helps when you have a lot of fans in the stands, but eventually there’s two teams on the field playing,” Smith said. “It didn’t affect us that much. I just wish we had played better.”
Wisconsin still managed to rack up 430 yards of total offense and possess the ball for nearly full three quarters (43 minutes, 28 seconds). Home field advantage was different, but still clearly a thing.
“Obviously it was really different,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “But I think the game itself, talking to the players, it felt like a game as well, right? No doubt it was different, but like I said, I thought the guys handled it well.
“There was good energy on the sideline, good energy exchanged, different units coming in. I think this team enjoyed the opportunity to play, enjoyed seeing each other. When guys made plays, celebrate it. No doubt was different, but nonetheless it was fun.”
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Illinois was already looking forward to Week 2 in the aftermath of Friday’s blowout loss. Smith mentioned in the postgame press conference losing to the Badgers “only counts as one loss.”
It’s a sentiment he apparently also shared with his team, which is set to host Purdue (1-0) at 11 a.m. next Saturday. The Boilermakers beat Iowa 24-20 on Saturday afternoon at home.
“Coach Lovie told us it’s only one loss in the column,” Peters said. “Thank the football gods that we have eight more games left to go.”