CHAMPAIGN — Having recently struggled mightily to stop the run against middling Big Ten teams Rutgers and Minnesota, the assignment Saturday against Wisconsin seemed impossible.
The unbeaten and 5th-ranked Badgers came to Memorial Stadium as the Big Ten’s No. 1 running team. They line up massive offensive linemen that look like snow plows and let freshman running back Jonathan Taylor follow their lead.
And when the snow started falling before the opening kickoff, it looked like Illinois could get plowed into the ditch.
Wisconsin improved to 8-0 on the season with a 24-10 victory, but marked improvement from the Illini defense was a welcome bright spot amid a six-game losing streak.
The problem was a sputtering Illini offense that could not establish a running game and looked out of sync as it once again used Jeff George Jr. and Cam Thomas in a rotation of quarterbacks.
An early mistake proved costly. The defense stopped Wisconsin on consecutive 3-and-outs to open the game and appeared to do it again, giving the Badgers fourth-and-four at its own 14.
But a penalty for having too many men on the field gave Wisconsin a first down. That resulted in a 15-play, 92-yard touchdown drive that got the Badgers on the board early.
“It gave them the momentum and we could never regain it,” Illini coach Lovie Smith lamented.
Still, Illinois hung around and trailed 17-3 late in the fourth quarter. Finally, the Badgers got the ball to the Illini 4-yard line but had to use trickery to find the end zone. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw a backward lateral pass to offensive lineman Michael Deiter, who rumbled over the goal line to make it 24-3 with 4:42 to play.
Illinois marched down field and scored with 49 seconds to play on a 3-yard run by Kendrick Foster.
“We try to look at how things really are,” Smith said. “We’re making progress but we’re still not doing enough good things to win the football game and eventually we have to do that.
“We’re making progress but we need that progress to end up being a win. We’ve lost six games in a row and that’s too many. We have to find a way to win a football game starting with winning the turnover battle.”
Illnois (2-6, 0-5) created just one turnover Saturday, a second-quarter interception by safety Bennett Williams. But the turnover battle was lost when freshman quarterback Cam Thomas threw two interceptions, including one on his first pass of the day, and Jeff George lost a fumble.
Combined, the two Illini QBs completed 9 of 31 passes for 108 yards.
Illinois was able to stay within reach of the Badgers (8-0, 5-0) by greatly tightening up its run defense.
Wisconsin came in averaging 257 rushing yards per game but got 168 against the Illini. The Badgers had averaged 6.8 yards per play this season but managed just 4.7 Saturday.
What changed for the Illini?
“To me it’s just effort level,” Bennett Williams said. “We all believed we have nothing to lose. We’re huge underdogs. Why not come out and give everything we’ve got? So we came out and did that and it definitely showed. They didn’t get any huge plays and we stopped them behind the line of scrimmage a lot.”
Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips, returning after a one-game absence due to injury, led the way with 14 tackles. Stanley Green, the sophomore safety from East St. Louis, set the tone. He had 10 tackles, six in the first quarter alone, and his early pursuit inspired the rest of the defense, Williams said.
“Me and Stan came out talking about let’s go hit and try to get some turnovers. Seeing Stan all game, he was flying around and pumped up after every play. I thought, ‘If he’s going to do that, why can’t we all?’ We played like that all game.”
It helped that Wisconsin’s lead back, Jonathan Taylor, hurt his left leg and didn’t play in the second half. He carried 12 times for 73 yards.
Despite the effort by the defense, Illinois couldn’t get going on offense.
George maintained he’s fine with the quarterback rotation, but implied he’d rather get a shot to do it on his own.
“I’m just doing whatever the coaches ask me to do,” George said. “Obviously I feel like I’m the guy, but whatever they have in mind. I’m willing to be a team player. But I feel like I give us the best opportunity to make things happen, selfishly.
“The challenge is just getting in a rhythm, but that’s no excuse. When you’re asked to go out there, you have to be ready to produce at a moment’s notice. Obviously, I’d like to finish drives.”
Injuries are once again a concern. Running back Ra’Von Bonner did not play with a concussion. Receiver Mike Dudek went down and did not return with an unspecified injury. Defensive lineman Kenyon Jackson left the game and did not return after being hit in the head. And Cam Thomas left late after injuring his ankle.
The Illini go back on the road and will play at Purdue at 11 a.m. Saturday (Big Ten Network).