Illinois was able to cover the four-touchdown spread fairly easily Saturday in Champaign, but couldn’t earn its first Big Ten win of the year against No. 5 Wisconsin in a 24-10 loss.
The Illini were held out of the end zone until the game’s final minute, despite having multiple drives penetrating deep into Wisconsin territory.
Let’s take a look at how each position group fared for the Illini in the loss:
Simply put: Not good enough. Not even close.
The two-headed monster of Caff Thorge Jr. combined to go 9 of 31 passing for 152 yards with zero touchdowns and three interceptions.
George Jr. took four sacks and fumbled twice, while Thomas completed the same number of passes to Illinois and Wisconsin (two each).
Thomas led the Illini in rushing for the second straight wee at 78 yards on just 10 carries. His ability to run is extremely dangerous, but the freshman is light years behind in his ability to read defenses and accurately throw the ball.
A quiet day mostly for the suddenly depleted running back corps.
Already without Mike Epstein for the season, Ra’Von Bonner and Dre Brown missed Saturday’s game as well with injuries. That left the Illini with their two starting running backs from last season: Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin.
Foster was the bell cow Saturday, toting the ball 15 times for 66 yards and a touchdown, while Corbin added five touches for 28 yards. Illinois never trailed by enough that the game felt out of reach, and I would have liked to see them run the ball a little bit more. Of 64 plays, 28 were rushes, along with five sacks. The way Illinois is passing the ball recently, the fewer attempts, the better.
It was a frustrating day for the Illini pass catchers.
Mike Dudek caught three passes for 33 yards before leaving with an injury, and Ricky Smalling was taken to the locker room in the third quarter before returning later in the game.
The George Jr. to Smalling connection in garbage time is becoming a weekly tradition, and the two hooked up for a 26-yard reception on Illinois’ final drive of the game.
Five sacks are too many, although I will say that I wouldn’t pin the blame on the offensive line for a few of them. George Jr. and Thomas both have limited pocket awareness to feel the rush around them, which leads to them taking extra hits.
Rushing for 4.1 yards per carry is a good benchmark for a group with so many young players.
Wisconsin makes its living by pounding the football on the ground again and again and again like the T-1000 Terminator, and the Illini held up for the most part.
The Badgers averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and Illinois was able to keep Wisconsin from getting into rhythm for most of the day.
Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver played their best games since the Western Kentucky game, combining for 11 tackles, 2.5 TFLs and a sack.
Del’Shawn Phillips showed why he’s one of the best run stuffers on the team with a team-high 14 tackles and a pair of TFLs. Phillips has a knack for being in the right spot and reads the game well.
Freshman James Knight picked up the start — the first of his career — and was ejected for an ugly targeting hit on a receiver over the middle.
Bennett Williams nabbed his second career interception while baiting Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook into an awful decision.
When you play Wisconsin, don’t expect them to air it out too often, and Bucky’s Badgers stayed true to form by throwing just 19 times in 66 plays.
Safeties Patrick Nelson and Stanley Greeen combined for 18 tackles, mostly in run support.
Chase McLauglin made a 28-yard field goal just before halftime and missed a 48-yarder into the wind in the fourth.
Team MVP Blake Hayes had another good day — punting four times for an average of 41 yards with two inside the 20-yard line.
Illinois was unable to get anything going in the return game, with just one punt return for eight yards.