No. 5 Wisconsin loses Taylor, beats Illinois
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For Wisconsin left tackle Michael Deiter, the waiting was the hardest part.
“They called the play in the huddle, then we had about a five-minute TV timeout,” he said. “By the end of it, I was getting nervous.”
Execution eventually overcame nerves on Deiter’s big play in an otherwise bland 24-10 win for the No. 5 Badgers over Illinois on Saturday in Memorial Stadium.
The 6-foot-6, 328-pound junior took a lateral from quarterback Alex Hornibrook on third-and-goal from the 4-yard line, swerved to the sideline and rumbled into the end zone as his fellow linemen walled off a couple of defenders.
The first touchdown of Deiter’s career upped the advantage to 24-3 for Wisconsin (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten), which has started a season with eight consecutive wins for the first time since 2004.
It was not the finest hour for the Badgers, who managed a season-low 303 yards against a team giving up nearly 410 yards per game. They played the second half without freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who managed 73 yards in 12 carries before leaving with a left leg injury.
But defense, a spate of killer mistakes from Illinois (2-6, 0-5) and a well-conceived trick play carried the day for Wisconsin.
“They’re the No. 5 team in the country for a reason,” Illini coach Lovie Smith said. “Number one, they don’t beat themselves. They’re top 10 in rushing defense and scoring defense, and they played like it today.”
Illinois never led and never seriously threatened, but the Illini were able to stay in contention as their defense held Wisconsin more than 150 yards under its per-game average.
In fact, the Badgers went three-and-out on their first two drives, and were about to punt after three unsuccessful downs when they got some help from the Illini. An illegal substitution foul gave Wisconsin a first down at its 19.
The Badgers burrowed their way to the end zone more than seven minutes later. On fourth-and-goal from inside the 1, fullback Alec Ingold plunged over center for a 7-0 lead with seven seconds left in the first quarter.
A strip-sack of Jeff George, Jr. at midfield led to a fumble recovery that set up the next Wisconsin points. Taking advantage of a targeting call on James Knight that led to his ejection, the Badgers made it 14-0 on a 2-yard run by Garrett Groshek with 7:07 remaining in the half.
Illinois got on the board when Chase McLaughlin converted a 28-yard field goal with 39 seconds left in the half. But Rafael Gaglianone answered back on the final snap, ignoring three straight timeouts by Smith to drill a 52-yarder and restore a 14-point lead.
“That was pretty big for us and him to get those points at the half,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said of Gaglianone.
Until Deiter’s shocking score, the Badgers’ defense did the heavy lifting after halftime. The Illini reached Wisconsin territory twice with a chance to slice into the 17-3 deficit, but McLaughlin’s 48-yard field goal try into the wind came up short, followed by Joe Ferguson’s interception of a deep throw by Cam Thomas.
Neither George nor Thomas displayed much accuracy, although a steady pass rush and windy conditions didn’t help. George was 7 of 20 for 108 yards and was sacked four times. Thomas completed only 2 of 11 passes for 44 yards with a pair of interceptions, although he did rush for a game-high 78 yards on 10 attempts.
Kendrick Foster made the final score look closer on a 3-yard touchdown run with 49 seconds remaining, but it still added up to a sixth straight loss for Illinois.
While the result might not look sexy to the College Football Playoff committee, which unveils its first rankings Tuesday night, Badgers right tackle David Edwards wasn’t overly concerned.
“The only time that matters is the last ranking,” he said.
NOTES: Wisconsin freshman RB Jonathan Taylor finished the game with 1,185 rushing yards. By comparison, Illinois has managed only 965 yards on the ground as a team. ... The Illini forced their 14th fumble of the season, taking over the FBS lead in that department. ... The Badgers came into Saturday’s game second in FBS with a 55.2 percent conversion rate on third downs, but they managed to make just 5 of 12. Only TCU was better at 56.2 percent.