After last week's debacle at Michigan, Wisconsin needed a pick-me-up. Hello, Illinois.
The Badgers forced five turnovers in the first half in taking a 28-10 lead and went on to a relatively easy 49-20 victory over the Illini.
Wisconsin gained 545 yards on offense and had two 100-yard rushers (Jonathan Taylor and Taiwan Deal) while Alex Hornibrook tossed three touchdown passes.
It was just the kind of win UW needed after being blown out on the road by the Wolverines the previous week.
However, not everything was perfect. Hornibrook threw a pair of interceptions, one of which was a pretty egregiously bad throw and decision, and for the second straight week the Badgers allowed a run of 80 yards (81 last week to Michigan QB Shea Patterson and an impressive 80-yard touchdown run to Illinois RB Reggie Corbin on Saturday).
But other than that run, Wisconsin allowed just 220 yards of offense despite a banged-up secondary and losing nose tackle Olive Sagapolu (who had a great interception after leaping and knocking down a pass) to injury in the first half.
While it wasn't the most beautiful game Wisconsin has played, it was pretty enough. And much needed.
In 2015, Evan Bondoc was a spring game hero after recording 12 tackles. Now a senior, he had played in 24 games since, mainly on special teams, with eight tackles. Until Saturday. With D'Cota Dixon and Reggie Nelson out, the Madison native made his first start at strong safety, and at home no less, made a quick impact with a shared tackle for loss in the first quarter, then came up with an interception in the second. He finished with five tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a pick. Not bad for a No. 3 safety making his first start.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT ME
Speaking of standing out in 2015, Taiwan Deal was once Wisconsin's starting running back as a freshman, but injuries curtailed his playing time and forced him to miss all of 2017. Now healthy, he's had some chances already this season but got just one carry in last week's loss at Michigan. Against Illinois, he got more of an opportunity and made the most of it, gaining 111 yards on just 12 carries. Nine of his rushes went for at least six yards, including a career-high 39-yarder for a score after busing up the middle and through tacklers. It made a potentially close 11-point game into a three-score game. Deal would get a second touchdown to finish off the scoring. A bit leaner, but still a hard runner, he's making for a good secondary back behind Jonathan Taylor, who, by the way, had a quiet 159 yards (if 159 can be quiet) on 27 carries.
Wisconsin was controlling the game for the most part but only led 14-7 when nose tackle Olive Sagapolu made an incredibly athletic play. Jumping up, he blocked an M.J. Rivers pass then caught the deflection (and even returned it four yards). It was the first interception by a Wisconsin defensive lineman since Pat Muldoon at Iowa on Nov. 2, 2013. More importantly, as far as this game is concerned, on the next play Hornibrook hit Jake Ferguson on a 27-yard touchdown pass. Wisconsin led by double digits the rest of the way.
5 -- turnovers forced by Wisconsin. The Badgers intercepted three passes -- at one point, Illinois quarterbacks had as many completions as interceptions -- their most in a Big Ten since they had three picks vs. Minnesota on Nov. 26, 2016. The five turnovers were the most since another game against the Gophers on Nov. 29, 2015, also corralling five in that contest. Wisconsin turned the five turnovers against Illinois into 21 points.
"Yeah, I mean, that's exactly I think accurate. Had a couple that weren't great. But I see what he was seeing. Liked his decision making on that. Obviously the picks, you want to look at a little bit closer and see. But I thought he made some really good plays. Best part about Alex is he keeps playing, doesn't let the previous play, good or bad, affect what's happening next." -- head coach Paul Chryst on the comment that QB Alex Hornibrook was "Off at times, but made a couple big throws."
"When things are going great, he's the same Alex as when things are going bad. It's that consistency factor that we love on the offense. Getting in the huddle and knowing exactly how he is calling the play to how he is going to hit his guys on routes. Whether it is a touchdown or a pick, he's the same guy. And that's big for our offense." -- fullback Alec Ingold on Hornibrook
"It was great having (Evan) Bondoc, who showed up, had a pick, caused a fumble. ... There's a guy that's been doing a ton for this program. To see him get his opportunity, then do well with it, that's awesome." -- Chryst
"It's really fun. We were just talking about how when we were younger, we were kids, just playing out in the back yard in the snow, it was always fun so that's what it kind of felt like." -- linebacker Ryan Connelly on playing in the snow
"You saw the score so I can't say that anyone did well today. ... I don't think that any of us played well, coached well. Wisconsin dominated us in every way." -- Illinois head coach Lovie Smith
Always an interesting opponent for Wisconsin, a game at Northwestern is next up for the Badgers. The Wildcats barely squeaked out an 18-15 win at Rutgers on Saturday but have now won three straight, including at Michigan State, and with a 4-1 conference record are in first place in the Big Ten West. Wisconsin has won the last two matchups against Northwestern, which won the previous two games.