Here are five things we learned from Wisconsin’s 56-32 victory against Illinois on Saturday night:
Chris Borland’s value to Wisconsin could be greater than we thought
We all knew Borland was a tremendous linebacker. But when Borland left the game for good in the first quarter after suffering a right leg injury, the Badgers’ defense changed. On Illinois’ first four series — with Borland in the game — the Illini ran 12 plays and gained minus-11 yards. On the team’s next three series, with Borland out, they ran 23 plays and gained 189 yards.
Marcus Trotter deserves plenty of credit for stepping up in Borland’s absence. Trotter led the team with nine tackles and recovered a fumble. But Borland brings another dimension to the team. Plus, who wouldn’t love to see him try a field goal of 45 yards or longer since he’s now the designated long-range kicker?
Wisconsin had better hope Borland’s injury isn’t serious enough to keep him out of the team’s next game, Nov. 2 against Iowa.
The secondary is still giving up too many big plays
Wisconsin scored so many points on Saturday that it didn’t really matter what the secondary did. In the second quarter, cornerback Darius Hillary was beaten for a 53-yard completion from Nathan Scheelhaase that led to the Illini’s first touchdown. Scheelhaase also completed a 39-yarder on cornerback Peniel Jean before halftime that led to another score.
In the second half, Scheelhaase completed a 29-yard pass on safety Dezmen Southward on a crossing route. Hillary was flagged for a pass interference call, and backup corner Jakarrie Washington gave up a 29-yard touchdown pass in mop-up duty.
Illinois threw for 319 yards, and though some of that had to do with the score, it should cause some alarm moving forward. Keep in mind Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly already racked up 352 yards through the air on this same defense last month.
The running game is as good as ever
The 1-2 combination of James White and Melvin Gordon simply couldn’t be stopped. Gordon carried 17 times for 142 yards and scored three touchdowns. White carried 20 times for 98 yards with two touchdowns and added 29 receiving yards and another touchdown. For good measure, Corey Clement got in on the fun and rushed for 54 yards and a touchdown.
In just seven games, Gordon already has gone over the 1,000-yard rushing mark (1,012) and is averaging 144.5 yards rushing per game. White is averaging 96.0 yards per game. You won’t find a better duo in all of college football.
Wisconsin just might be the second-best team in the Big Ten
The Badgers fell off the national radar after losing two of their first five games to Arizona State and Ohio State. But Wisconsin didn’t suddenly become a middling football program. The Badgers proved for a second straight week that they could dominate a Big Ten foe, this time winning on the road at night for the first time this season.
Michigan State has a better defense, but Wisconsin may have the better team. Michigan State, along with Nebraska, really are the only two teams that can lay claim to being second behind Ohio State. And given that the Buckeyes barely escaped against Iowa on Saturday, a case could be made that Wisconsin is playing better football than anybody.
The Badgers’ defense was opportunistic
Wisconsin entered Saturday’s game having recovered three fumbles all season in six games. But the Badgers pounced on two fumbles and forced two others against Illinois.
In the first quarter, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was lined up at wide receiver and took a pitch running across the middle of the field. But he lost the ball, and Badgers defensive end Ethan Hemer recovered. The play helped set up a 2-yard touchdown pass from Joel Stave to tight end Brian Wozniak for a 21-0 Wisconsin lead.
In the fourth quarter, Badgers defensive lineman Tyler Dippel forced a fumble on a run by Donovonn Young, which was recovered by Marcus Trotter. That play helped lead to running back Corey Clement’s 5-yard touchdown run, which capped the scoring for Wisconsin in the 56-32 victory.