MADISON, Wis. - Wisconsin's offense struggled at first, but the Badgers (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) eventually pulled away from Illinois (2-4, 0-2 Big Ten) and beat the Illini 31-14 Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave completed 16-of-25 passes for 254 yards, and running back Montee Ball finished the game on a high note with two touchdowns and 116 yards after rushing for just 19 yards through three quarters.
But while the Badgers ended up putting the Illini away with a strong fourth quarter, it was the defense that saved the day and kept them in the game after Stave and the offense got off to another slow starts. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for just 178 yards on 18-of-29 passing, and the Badgers held the Illini to just 14 points and 284 total yards in the game.
"I knew our defense could play well," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said after the game. "Obviously came alive on a couple of plays up inside. I've been stressing to our defensive guys - and I give a lot of credit to our staff - if we can just line up and play and make them earn every inch they'll be hard to score on … If we keep the ball in front of us, eventually we're going to make that defensive stop."
It was quite the defensive effort for the Badgers, who tied a season-high four sacks against Illinois and Scheelhaase. They also forced two fumbles and recorded their first interception of the year, which eventually set up their first score of the game. The Badgers also let the Illini convert just 5-of-16 third downs, which gave their offense plenty of chances to get some momentum going early in the game.
But even with extra chances, the Badgers couldn't get any traction on offense in the first half Saturday. The Illini and Badgers traded three-and-outs to start the game, and a holding penalty stalled out their second drive of the quarter. Bielema then subbed in redshirt senior quarterback Curt Phillips for Stave for two plays. The decision raised some eyebrows, as Bielema previously subbed Danny O'Brien in for Stave during the final two minutes of their loss to Nebraska, but Bielema said they have a specific package for Phillips that they were looking for a chance to use.
"The offensive coaches and myself wanted to give Curt an opportunity to get out there and show what he's got," Bielema said. "It wasn't anything against Joel, we were going to do it on the third series, and that's what happened."
Stave re-entered the game on third down and threw an interception to Illinois defensive back Steve Hull, who returned it to Wisconsin's 28-yard line. It was a momentum boost for the Illini, as Scheelhaase and wide receiver Josh Ferguson hooked up for a 23-yard completion, and Scheelhaase scrambled for a touchdown on the next play to put the Illini up 7-0 early in the second quarter.
But turnovers came back to haunt the Illini as well. A chop block stalled Wisconsin's next drive, and the two teams traded three-and-outs again before Scheelhaase broke Wisconsin's contain and rushed for 24 yards to the Badgers' 30-yard line. The Illini were knocking on the door of the red zone, but Wisconsin cornerback Devin Smith intercepted Scheelhaase at Wisconsin's own 21-yard line. It was the first interception of the season for the Badgers, who capitalized on the turnover in their next drive.
"They were on our side of the field and they were in a potential area to score," Smith said after the game. "So it was a third-down play and we caught man coverage, and it was one-on-one backside and I had a good feeling that they were going back side to me. So I just anticipated a route and, as soon as he set his feet, I dove at the ball."
Ball and fellow running back Melvin Gordon combined for 16 yards on Wisconsin's ensuing possession, but the Illini forced the Badgers into a third down by stuffing Ball and James White on the next two plays. But Stave found White wide open on a short screen pass, and the junior took the ball 62 yards in for Wisconsin's first score of the game.
"The play with James - that makes my job a lot easier when I can dump it 10 yards over to him and he takes it 60, 70 yards for a touchdown," Stave said after the game. "That's really fun to see."
Stave missed his second touchdown of the day when he missed a wide-open Jacob Pedersen on their second drive of the third quarter, and the Badgers had to settle for a 46-yard field goal from Kyle French to put them up 10-7. It was their first lead of the game, and one they wouldn't surrender. They tacked on another score early in the fourth quarter when Ball found the endzone on a 9-yard run after Illinois punter Justin DuVernois shanked the ball for 10 yards and gave Wisconsin the ball at their own 41-yard line.
Ball's score was just the start of a big fourth quarter for the Badgers, who scored 21 points total late in the game. The Badgers found the endzone again on a deep pass to Jared Abbrederis, who ran 59 yards for his first and only touchdown of the game. But the Illini struck back: Scheelhaase connected with wide receiver Ryan Lankford on an 8-yard pass for a touchdown, bringing the Illini within 10 points of the lead. But Illinois failed to recover the ensuing onside kick, and the Badgers were able to seal up the win on a 19-yard rushing touchdown from Ball.
Ball thought the team's performance in the fourth quarter could be a turning point for the Badgers, who have struggled mightily at times to put points up on the board this season. They'll head down to West Lafayette, Ind., next week to take on Purdue, and they'll need all the confidence they can get for a game that could decide who wins the Big Ten's Leaders division this season.
"If everything goes as planned, if we end up where we want to end up at the end of the season, we'll look back at that fourth quarter," Ball said. "Let's give credit to Illinois for making us sweat, they did a great job. Be we were supposed to come into this game and do what we did. It's just a great feeling overall right now."
For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.