Wisconsin put together its best all-around effort this season during a 31-14 victory against Illinois on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
The offense tallied a season-high 427 yards, the defense allowed a season-low 178 yards passing, and the special teams play finally didn’t produce any significant blunders. Illinois certainly is no Ohio State, but there is plenty of reason to be encouraged if you support the Badgers.
Handing out grades for Wisconsin’s sixth game of the season:
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Passing offense: B
Redshirt freshman Joel Stave keeps improving with each start, and that was evident during Saturday’s game against Illinois. Stave threw for a career-high 254 yards and went over the 200-yard mark for the third time in his three starts. He also set career highs for completions (16) and attempts (25).
The strangest move of the day came when Wisconsin’s coaching staff inserted third-string quarterback Curt Phillips into the game to run a full series. Badgers coach Bret Bielema said they had intended to get Phillips on the field for the third series no matter what. Still, the timing seemed off because the Badgers’ offense struggled even worse with him in the game.
Phillips had his only completion negated because of a penalty, and he ran one time for minus-two yards. On the next series, Stave threw an interception, and it looked as though the sky was falling.
But Stave demonstrated his ability to remain level headed in times of crisis. He hit James White on a screen pass that went for a 62-yard touchdown. Later, he found receiver Jared Abbrederis for a 59-yard touchdown.
It was a solid performance all around from Stave, save for the interception. And it should provide the team with confidence as the Big Ten season continues.
Rushing offense: B
This grade really should be split between the fourth quarter and the rest of the game. Wisconsin earns an A for the fourth quarter and a C-plus for the rest.
Badgers running back Montee Ball continued to struggle finding holes early in the game, but he dominated late. Ball gained 97 of his game-high 116 yards in the fourth quarter and scored both of his touchdowns in the final period as well.
In the end, the numbers were classic Ball. His two rushing scores moved him into a tie for third in NCAA history with 69. He needs just 10 touchdowns to break the NCAA record, and it’s beginning to look like that’s going to happen. Ball has scored five of his eight touchdowns this season in the past two games.
The good news on Saturday was that James White contributed significantly as well. White carried six times for 42 yards, including a nice 22-yard gain. White’s touches have been limited, but he has shown an ability to be a spark. Melvin Gordon added five carries for 15 yards.
For the game, Wisconsin rushed 33 times for 173 yards with two touchdowns. The yards-per-carry was 5.2, which is the type of production fans have been waiting to see all season. Passing defense: B-plus
The Badgers hadn’t been particularly strong against the pass this season, but they put together their best performance on Saturday.
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase completed 18 of 29 passes for 178 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The 178 yards passing represented a season low for Wisconsin’s defense.
This season, the team is allowing 223.3 passing yards per game, which ranks 58th in the country.
More encouraging, senior cornerback Devin Smith recorded Wisconsin’s first interception of the season when he picked off Scheelhaase in the second quarter. Maybe that type of play can provide a snowball effect for a defense that desperately wants to create more turnovers.
Rushing defense: B-plus
This area has been a strong point for Wisconsin all season, and it continued against Illinois.
The Illini carried the ball 34 times for 106 yards with a touchdown. But the 3.1 yards-per-carry mark is excellent. On the season, Wisconsin is allowing just 3.47 yards per rush. The Badgers rank 25th nationally, allowing 114.7 yards per game.
Wisconsin’s crop of linebackers (Mike Taylor, Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong) should be feared throughout the Big Ten. Those players track down the ball carrier relentlessly and serve as a big reason for the team’s success in the run defense. The trio combined to make 32 tackles against Illinois. Special teams: A-minus
For arguably the first time all season, there were no gaffes to be found from Wisconsin’s kicking game. It appears the combination of using Jack Russell on kickoffs and Kyle French on extra points and field goals is the magic formula.
French, who lost his starting job in both kicking roles earlier in the season, has earned the right to be the team’s field goal kicker for the rest of the season. On Saturday, he buried a career-long 46-yard field goal in the second quarter to put Wisconsin ahead 10-7.
Bielema called the kick one of the biggest plays of the game, and rightfully so. The Badgers never trailed the rest of the way.
Russell was solid for the most part on his kickoffs. A few were lofted high and short, but Illinois wasn’t able to return them for decent yardage. As long as Russell doesn’t kick the ball out of bounds — something French struggled with — he should be fine.
Drew Meyer continued to excel as the team’s punter. He punted five times for an average of 41.6 yards per try and boomed three kicks inside the 20-yard-line.
The only reason this isn’t a solid “A” is because punt returner Kenzel Doe struggled. He had three punt returns for minus-3 yards, which included a muff. Jared Abbrederis eventually took Doe’s spot on punt returns. Overall: B-plus
Wisconsin started slow on offense, but this was perhaps the Badgers’ best overall effort of the season. The Badgers scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, running back Montee Ball showed flashes of his former self, quarterback Joel Stave was solid, the defense didn’t break and the kicking game was great.
Badgers fans should be encouraged about the way their team played, even if it came against lowly Illinois. All that matters is the win, and Wisconsin certainly has done that well at home. Wisconsin owns the second-longest active home winning streak in the country, having won its last 20 games at Camp Randall Stadium. And Bielema is 43-3 at home in his seven seasons as head coach.
The true test will come next week when Wisconsin travels to face Purdue. It’s still early in the Big Ten season, but that game could go a long way toward determining which team represents the Leaders Division in the conference title game.