This year's Wisconsin Badgers might want to borrow a slogan from the 1983 Chicago White Sox -- Winning Ugly.
Wisconsin's 24-10 win at Illinois won't gain the team any style points or favor in any national rankings, but it was, well, a win, which last time we checked was better than a loss.
The Badgers offense struggled all game, even more so after star running back Jonathan Taylor injured his ankle and stopped playing in the second quarter. Wisconsin suffered other injuries as well -- fullback Austin Ramesh left the game early and never returned and starting safety D'Cota Dixon, the team's leading tackler, didn't suit up. These are hopefully just short-term concerns for Wisconsin.
While the Badgers hardly played an inspiring game -- although the defense was fairly solid as usual -- the woeful Illini couldn't take advantage and helped the Badgers at every turn.
A stagnant UW offense was bolstered by an illegal participation penalty before the Badgers lined up to punt on fourth-and-4 on their own 14 in a scoreless game -- Wisconsin then went and marched down for a touchdown.
Illinois quarterback Cam Thomas threw two incredibly bad interceptions -- he only completed two passes -- right at Wisconsin defenders for easy picks. Late in the game with Illinois down 17-3, head coach Lovie Smith decided on a field-goal attempt from 48 yards into a stiff wind rather than go for a first down. Expectedly, the kick sailed wide right.
Wisconsin probably didn't need the help, but it didn't hurt.
Illinois has struggled passing all season. Having to face Nick Nelson didn’t help the cause. Illini quarterbacks Jeff George Jr. and Cam Thomas tested Nelson four times -- and each time Nelson recorded a pass breakup. That gives Nelson an incredible 14 PBUs on the season -- the Wisconsin single-season record is 19; Nelson is already tied for fourth-most. Illinois has no completions against Nelson. His only tackle came when he had to help in run support. Nelson also almost had a sack, just missing out and instead settling for a QB hurry. And forget that pass interference call late in the game; that was obvious PI on the offense. Oh well, we guess no game can be perfect, but this one was close.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT ME
We wrote earlier in the week about how Garrett Groshek had earned more playing time in key situations. We weren't joking. Coming into Saturday's game, all of Groshek's carries but one had come in the fourth quarter. Against Illinois, Groshek had seven first-half rushes, including one for a touchdown. He finished with 42 yards on 12 carries, ably filling in with Jonathan Taylor forced out due to injury, Bradrick Shaw clearly struggling this season and Chris James sidelined again. The former walk-on who early in the year just saw garbage time is now a full-fledged contributor.
We weren't sure what this was going to be -- probably Illinois' idiotic penalty before that fourth-and-4 -- and then perhaps the most glorious touchdown in the history of Wisconsin football occurred. This game needed a little pick-me-up (it wasn't the most exciting affair) and we got it late in the fourth quarter. Leading 17-3, the Badgers were basically running out the clock and looking to pad the score with any points. Right before a third-and-4 from the Illinois 4-yard line, Wisconsin called time out. The play called during the stoppage was ingenious. Alex Hornibrook fake a hand-off and rolled to his right. Suddenly, the quarterback stopped and threw back to his left, tossing a backwards pass to none other than left tackle Michael Deiter, who had a lot of room (and plenty of blockers) to get into the end zone. Doing some research, this looks to be the first touchdown by a Wisconsin offensive lineman since Paul Gruber on Oct. 17, 1987 at Illinois, of all places. But Gruber's wasn't as exciting. He just fell on a fumble in the end zone. Deiter's will live on in Badgers lore.
303 -- Wisconsin total yards. How rare is it for the Badgers to win with such a "blah" offensive performance? The last time the Badgers won a game with as fewer yards than they compiled against Illinois was when they had 234 in beating Utah State on Sept. 15, 2012. The injury to Jonathan Taylor (12 rushes for 73 yards) didn't help, obviously, but Wisconsin never could get in sync in this one.
THEY SAID IT
"Defensively I thought we came up big in the red zone, and we needed it. We needed those turnovers because, offensively we were inconsistent. But I thought offensively we finished. A lot goes into winning a game and we appreciate that from the guys." -- head coach Paul Chryst
"Yeah, that was awesome. I thought the worst part of it was right after we called it we had to wait five minutes for a TV timeout so I think he might have been a little nervous about that. We were all wanting to run it and when we got in the end zone it was awesome, we went crazy. It was like a dogpile on him." -- quarterback Alex Hornibrook on Michael Deiter's touchdown
"I was super nervous. I've never touched a football in a football game other than (at) center. I had the whole offensive line out in front of me. There was no way I wasn't going to get in." -- Deiter
"When someone does get a pick or fumble, everybody is juiced-up and excited for them. It makes everyone else want to make a play." -- safety Joe Ferguson, who had an interception
Wisconsin stays on the road, traveling to Indiana. Under first-year head coach Tom Allen, the Hoosiers (3-5, 0-5 Big Ten) are coming off a 42-39 loss at Maryland and haven't beaten an FBS team since Sept. 23.
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