CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Wisconsin has relied all season on star freshman running back Jonathan Taylor to provide the winning edge.
When Taylor went down with an injury against Illinois on Saturday, the fifth-ranked Badgers showed how well they can play defense, forcing three turnovers to help key a 24-10 victory.
Wisconsin had five sacks and three quarterback hurries against the Illini’s inexperienced quarterbacks. The pressure up front led to two interceptions, one by defensive back Joe Ferguson, and a fumble recovery.
“When someone does get a pick or fumble, everybody is juiced-up and excited for them,” Ferguson said. “It makes everyone else want to make a play.”
On offense, Wisconsin did just enough to get by. Alec Ingold and Garrett Groshek scored on short runs in the first half, and offensive lineman Michael Deiter added another touchdown on a trick play late in the game.
Taylor entered the game averaging 158.6 yards rushing, but only had 73 before leaving the game in the second quarter. Head coach Paul Chryst said he does not know the extent of the injury.
“It was fun to see other guys have to step up,” Chryst said. “We’ll find out more about JT at practice this week.”
Alex Hornibrook made enough throws to get the victory for Wisconsin (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten). None was better than on the trick play that freed Deiter for his first career touchdown.
Hornibrook dropped back on third-and-goal from the 4 and rushed right before throwing a backward pass to Deiter on the other side. The 328-pound Deiter caught it and hustled in for the score.
“I was super nervous,” Deiter said. “I’ve never touched a football in a football game other than @ center. I had the whole offensive line out in front of me. There was no way I wasn’t going to get in.”
Wisconsin gained 303 yards, well below its season average of 462.7 yards, but was able to overcome a sluggish performance for its 11th consecutive conference victory.
After starting with consecutive three-and-outs, Wisconsin came alive behind Taylor, who gained 52 yards to set up Ingold’s 1-yard plunge on his only carry of the game. That capped a 15-play, 92-yard drive that took just over eight minutes.
Without Taylor to contend with, the Illinois defense held its own, keeping the score at 17-3 until the fourth quarter. But the Illini offense never found a rhythm.
“It was an outstanding defense that we were going against,” Illini coach Lovie Smith said. “We couldn’t establish the run. We had our moments with the passing game, but not enough consistency to win.”
Sophomore Jeff George Jr. and freshman Cam Thomas combined to go 9 of 31 for 152 yards. Thomas threw the interceptions, the second coming midway through the fourth quarter and ending any hopes of a comeback.
The Illini (2-6, 0-5) finally found the end zone on a 3-yard run by Kendrick Foster, but it came with less than a minute left in the game.
Wisconsin: The Badgers’ hopes for a Big Ten title remained intact despite losing Taylor. They didn’t look worthy of making the playoffs, though.
Illinois: The Illini have the worst scoring offense in the Big Ten and it showed. Smith’s dual-quarterback approach doesn’t seem to be the answer. In the past two games, George has thrown just one touchdown pass and Thomas has thrown three interceptions.
QUARTERBACK WIN STREAK
Wisconsin has not lost a game in Hornibrook’s last 14 starts. It’s the nation’s longest active win streak by a quarterback. The streak started last October with a 17-9 victory over Iowa.
Linebacker James Knight was ejected in the second quarter for targeting. After a 13-yard completion from Hornibrook to wide receiver Quintez Cephus, Knight dived in and tagged Cephus with a late hit to the head. Knight is the fourth Illini to be ejected for targeting this season. Bennett Williams, defensive back Stanley Green, and linebacker Tre Watson are the others.
After starting two consecutive games, Illinois RB Ra’Von Bonner did not suit up against Wisconsin due to a concussion. Bonner has 219 yards on 67 carries and leads the team with four rushing touchdowns this season.
Illinois hits the road to face Purdue next Saturday.
Wisconsin is on the road against Indiana next Saturday.