CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Wisconsin wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away. No way. The Badgers had come too far to blow it now.
There was the excruciating 37-31 loss at Michigan State that came on a last-second Hail Mary pass. And that was followed by a torturous 33-29 defeat at Ohio State on a last-minute Hail Mary pass. But Wisconsin stayed the course—and got some help along the way in losses by Penn State and Ohio State—to find itself in control of its own destiny in the Leaders Division when it woke up this morning.
So, down 17-7 at halftime at Illinois, there wasn’t a peep of panic from the Badgers on this gray November day. When faced with crisis, Wisconsin turned to an old, reliable friend: a punch-you-in-the-nose ground game in forging a 28-17 victory.
“They have really good defensive ends and also at the same time we felt that we had to get first downs when we needed to, and the wind being a pretty big factor we had to focus on what we could control,” said Badger quarterback Russell Wilson, who hit 10-of-13 passes for just 90 yards with one touchdown. “And when it was time to pass, I had to make a big-time throw and guys made some big-time catches.”
And—who else?–Montee Ball was the star.
The Badgers (9-2 overall, 5-2 Big Ten) finished with just 285 yards of offense—214 fewer than they had been averaging. Still, Illinois had no answer for Ball, who eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark for the seventh time in 2011 and 13th time in his career en route to finishing with a career-high 38 totes for a career-high 224 yards.
How hot has Ball been? In the last three weeks, he has rushed for 613 yards (204.3 ypg). This late-season surge is nothing new, as Ball averaged 161.3 yards rushing in four November games in 2010.
“He enjoys every minute of it,” said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who is 18-2 in regular-season games played after November 1. “I’ve never had a running back compete in practice as hard as he does. That’s why the games are slow for him, as easy as they are. He works his tail off every day of the week.”
After forcing a three-and-out on Illinois’ first possession of the second half, the Badgers took over and executed a 13-play drive that featured 10 Ball rushes and resulted in—ironically—a 5-yard touchdown PASS to Ball to cut the Illinois lead to 17-14.
Later in the quarter, Wisconsin took the lead for good on a 1-yard touchdown run by Russell Wilson on a four-play drive that was highlighted by a 34-yard Ball run. Leading 21-17, the Badgers never looked back.
“He’s been able to get the job done, he’s been reliable, he’s been productive, so why not rely on him?” said Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler. “I think every game for us comes down to a running game. I had no idea what the game plan would be like with Coach (Paul) Chryst, but he made the right calls and it worked.”
The Badgers’ methodical win sets up a winner-takes-all showdown next Saturday in Madison vs. Penn State. Beat the Nittany Lions, and advance to the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis on December 3. Making that possibility even more delicious is the specter of a possible rematch with Michigan State, which clinched the Legends Division crown today.
“Against Penn State, there’s a lot on the table and we know it’s senior day,” said Bielema. “What we’ve had to go through in the world of college football is very unique only to us and to have that disappointment, to rise up from that is very special to us … .”
The Wisconsin attack got off to a sluggish start, failing to score on its first four possessions and trailing 17-7 at halftime. Meanwhile, Illinois was cooking up an upset with a unique offensive game plan that featured the passing game. Credit Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, one of the best in the business. Another twist that was fueling the fire of the Fighting Illini offense: Petrino worked from the sideline as opposed to his typical perch from the press box. It was all about being on the sideline to feel the vibe of the players and to talk directly to his quarterbacks. There is nothing better than looking a man eye-to-eye.
“Well, once again, it goes back to trying to change some things up,” said Illinois coach Ron Zook. “When things aren’t going the way you want them to go, as I said, I think you have to do some changing.”
But in the end, Wisconsin was too good. The defense stiffened, allowing only 77 yards in the second half after yielding 224 in the first two quarters. And as game went on, the Wisconsin offense turned to a steady diet of Montee Ball left, Montee Ball right and Montee Ball up the middle on a day when Wilson played second fiddle to the rushing game.
“All right, (it was a) tale of two teams out there; tale of two halves,” said Zook.
The Illini became bowl eligible back when the leaves were still on the trees and people were still mowing their yards weekly. But now, Illinois has seen a 6-0 start melt into a 6-5 reality. Promise has turned into panic in Champaign. And some tough questions will start to be asked with just a season-ending game at Minnesota left. For Wisconsin, the questions aren’t so difficult as it prepares for the final test vs. Penn State.
A trip to play Michigan State in the Big Ten title game awaits. Wisconsin couldn’t ask for anything more, given where it was at in October after those two crushing losses.
“Now that takes us to this week” said Bielema. “We’ll take a look at film and have an opportunity.”
A big opportunity for a team that wouldn’t stop fighting. And a team that just may be the best in the Big Ten.
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed. You can send him your football questions to his Big Ten mailbag, too.