CHAMPAIGN — Wisconsin was banged up, bruised, injured and losing offensive stars at a rapid rate Saturday.
But even still, Illinois just couldn’t keep up.
The Illini are dealing with plenty of their own injuries, and even with the Badgers losing starting quarterback Joel Stave, starting wide receiver Robert Wheelwright and starting center Dan Voltz during Saturday’s game — not to mention the fact that Wisconsin came to Champaign without its top two running backs, Corey Clement and Taiwan Deal — the Illini couldn’t match the Badgers in a 24-13 loss at Memorial Stadium.
Wisconsin backup quarterback Bart Houston played well in relief of Stave, and receiver Alex Erickson had a monster game en route to the Badger win, blowing past what had been a pretty successful Illinois defense through the team’s first six games. Houston completed 22 of his 33 passing attempts for 232 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Erickson led the Badgers in rushing and receiving, going for 177 total yards, catching a touchdown pass and turning in what might have been the game’s biggest play with a 56-yard gain on an end around.
“I just think they did a good job of getting the ball to their playmakers,” Illinois co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks said after the game. “We felt like the back that we saw was a pretty good back. He made some plays against other guys. Same thing with (Erickson), we felt like he was a solid player and he could make some plays. We just didn’t do a good enough job of taking those guys away, and that’s something we’ll continue to address and try to get better at.”
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The Illini defense looked great early, getting all sorts of pressure on Stave, and it wasn’t long before the quarterback was out of the game with a head injury, and Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said after the game that Stave went through concussion protocols.
Illinois got an early field goal, having to settle once reaching the red zone on a short field. But that maybe should be looked at as a blessing rather than a missed opportunity, considering it required a replay review to overturn a Wisconsin interception of Wes Lunt.
But when Houston entered the game, he had instantaneous and sustained success against the Illini defense. He helped engineer an 89-yard touchdown drive that ended in a 23-yard scoring pass to Wheelwright, who made a great catch and dive for the pylon. A drive all the way to the Illinois three-yard line followed, resulting in a field goal. And Houston took the Badgers down to the three-yard line on the next drive, too, but Wheelwright dropped a sure touchdown in the end zone before Houston threw an interception.
Meanwhile, the Illinois offense wasn’t doing much of anything against the Wisconsin defense, unable to match the drives Houston was leading on the other side of the ball.
The Illini finally broke through with a 36-yard touchdown run from Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third quarter that put Illinois in front, 13-10. But Wisconsin’s next offensive play was the 56-yard run by Erickson, and the Badgers were into the end zone not too long after. The Illini kept stalling on their offensive possessions, and Houston tacked on with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Erickson the next time the Badgers had the ball.
Houston would add another interception late in the game, but he did a generally great job for a guy who entered Saturday with 13 career passing attempts to his name.
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“He enjoyed getting the chance to play,” Chryst said. “It didn’t seem too big for him. I thought he competed. I thought he stood in there. He made some throws, and that was good. Certainly a couple he would like back. I thought he competed, and he played and that was fun to see.”
“I thought he played well,” Illinois interim head coach Bill Cubit said. “He had a couple picks down there in the red zone. But it didn’t seem to faze them that much on the other side. Sometimes, a second-string guy goes in, all of a sudden they don’t have as much confidence because they’re not as used to it. But I thought the kid played really well. I give the kid a lot of credit.”
While Houston and the rest of a limping Wisconsin offense was working over the Illinois defense, the Illini offense was doing it’s own fair share of limping. They might not have been hit with the in-game injuries that the Badgers had to battle, but weeks’ worth of injuries have compounded to make the Illini a pretty ineffective offensive team.
Senior running back Josh Ferguson remains sidelined with a shoulder sprain, the receiving corps is down Mike Dudek, Justin Hardee and Marchie Murdock and there’s a supreme shortage of tight ends. It all made for a pretty tough day offensively. Illinois was out-gained, 419-333, and had just 55 rushing yards. The Illini settled for field goals on both its trips to the red zone and were just 3-for-12 on third down.
Up against a Wisconsin defense that ranks as one of the country’s best, it was going to be mighty difficult for Lunt to lead an effective group.
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“Hard. It really is. You’ve got to scheme, and you’ve got to be almost perfect at times,” Cubit said. “And that’s why you’ve got to rely on your defense, you’ve got to make low-scoring games. Because we’re not going to be an explosive group. Right now, we’re just banged up. We’re not going to get a lot of those guys back, so it doesn’t make a difference. You just play, be smart. You’ve got to play old-school football. I know everybody likes that high-flying thing, but we just can’t do it right now.
“Wideout-wise, we’re so beat up. But that’s the one way we can move the ball. And then you say, ‘Let’s give them a rest’ and there’s no tight ends in there. … You could see them. When they needed to run it, they ran it. Sometimes when we needed to run it, we don’t run it real well, and we’ve got to get better at that.”
The Illini still have a goal of winning the Big Ten West, but that’s going to be a very steep climb, what with Iowa remaining undefeated and Wisconsin now a spot ahead of Illinois with just one loss. Health might not be coming soon — for either team that’s battled injuries all year — but that doesn’t mean they get to stop playing.
“Like I told them in there, I think the true measure of a man is really it’s not that you get knocked down. When you get knocked down, you’ve got to get back up. I think that’s what we’ve got to do,” Cubit said. “We’ve got to watch the tape: ‘OK, what got us beat?’ Everybody’s got to man up, coaches, players, and fix it. That’s the only way I see it. I think we did that after North Carolina. Apparently we didn’t get it done (after the last lost Iowa).
“We’ve been in three (Big Ten games). We’ve been in there near the end all the time. So we’ve just got to knock that through and get moving.”