CHAMPAIGN — Already without its top two running backs Saturday, Wisconsin's offense was banged up in critical fashion against Illinois.
The Badgers won the game, 24-13, but at quite the cost. Starting quarterback Joel Stave was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with a head injury. Starting wide receiver Robert Wheelwright and starting center Dan Voltz were knocked out in the second half with leg injuries.
For an offense already down Corey Clement and Taiwan Deal — the Nos. 1 and 2 running backs — as well as top tight end Austin Traylor, it's not a good sign.
When asked the status of Stave after the game, head coach Paul Chryst reported that the senior QB went through concussion protocols and was cleared but was taken out of the game anyway.
"He says he's feeling all right now, which is good," Chryst said. "He went out and doctors went through the protocol. He went back in for that one drive. You could tell the way he wasn't getting the plays. Thought, 'You know what, you just don't know.' He was cleared, but we thought Bart (Houston, backup quarterback) was going to be our best chance on it."
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Though the Badgers suffered several key in-game injuries, they got great performances from others to fill the void.
Houston, in particular, was generally great after being thrust into action. He completed 22 of his 33 passing attempts for 232 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He did throw two interceptions, but he was able to help engineer several drives that took the Badgers deep into Illinois territory.
"It's a little bit different not having Joel in there to lead us, but Bart stepped in great." running back Alec Ingold said. "We take two reps all the time, so he was comfortable with the guys."
Ingold is the team's No. 4 running back, really, but he scored a touchdown Saturday and now has four in his freshman season.
Wheelwright had the Badgers' first touchdown catch Saturday, but it was wideout Alek Erickson who had a monster day in multiple ways. He caught 10 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown and rushed the ball four times for 81 yards, a team high. His 56-yard run on an end around was arguably the game's biggest play.
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Erickson's receiving efforts helped make up for the injuries in the receiving corps, while his work carrying the ball helped make up for the absence of Clement and Deal.
It was a huge performance.
"I though Alex owned his performance today," Chryst said. "I thought Alex was big on third down. They were blocked well, but I thought he ran extremely well. I think when you have a situation like what happened today, guys need to step in. I thought Alex did that in a big way."
We'll see how long Wisconsin is without some of these big offensive pieces. Clement's weeks-long absence has already had obvious effects. Losing Stave for any length of time would also prove very detrimental.
But the Badgers will try to take these injuries in stride.
"I think you have to react positively," Chryst said. "Whether it's football or whatever, life's about making choices and how you choose to respond to something. To give our team the best chance, members of the team need to respond positively. That can challenge you, bur it's opportunity and you have to seize the opportunity.
"The players are responding to the opportunities and the challenges. We were talking about Alex Erickson, what a huge contribution. Defensively, we had a lot of guys do some really good things. You don't have everyone, but you've still got enough and that's the beauty of it."