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Reality hit early and often

Didn’t even matter that the stadium was empty.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In a 45-7 loss at Wisconsin, the Illini suffered a fate — so common, so expected — that is baked into the pysche of the football program. Losing badly in Madison is routine for the Illini. Watching the Badgers out-scheme and physically manhandle the Illini is par-the-course. Since 1993, the Illini have only won one once in Madison. More recently, the Badgers, in Madison, beat the Illini 48-3 in 2016 and 49-20 in 2018.

The Reality Dealt was much worse than the Reality Expected

Illini fans were realistic enough going into this game to understand that there was minimal hope for victory. But the reality dealt to Illini fans last night was much worse than the pre-game reality they had accepted.

Now, in Year 5 of Lovie’s tenure, there was some hope that the Illini had closed the gap enough on the Badgers to be competitive in this game on the road. Unfortunately, the Illini are nowhere near competing annually with the Badgers, who showed that last year’s upset loss in Champaign was a mere aberration in a long line of thrashings.

Mertz picks apart the defense early

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The night for Illinois was doomed from the beginning when Mike Epstein fumbled on the second play of the game. The Badgers swarming defense recovered. Then, Graham Mertz— the heralded redshirt freshman blue chip quarterback from Overland Park, Kansas — took the reigns of the offense and made one thing abundantly clear: The Illini will not be beating the Badgers again while Mertz is under center in Madison.

Mertz took the Badgers down the field on a drive that ended with a touchdown pass to fullback Mason Stokke. Then Mertz torched the Illini drive after drive completing his first 17 passes.

With the Badgers up 14-0, the Illini had moment of hope when sophomore linebacker Tarique Barnes returned a fumble 39 yards for a touchdown to cut the Badgers’ lead to 14-7. But, Mertz struck again leading Wisconsin back into the endzone on the ensuing drive to take a 21-7 lead. The Badgers, on a perfectly thrown deep pass from Mertz, then tacked on another touchdown in final seconds of the first half to take 28-7 halftime lead.

Illinois’ offense was inept

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, the Illini’s offense was getting manhandled at the point of attack and failed to generate any running lanes.

Combine that with a lack of receiver separation in the passing game and the Illini had a trifecta for complete offensive ineptitude. The Illini finished with 218 yards as their veteran quarterback, Brandon Peters, finished a paltry 8-for-19 for 87 yards.

The second half was much of the same.

The domination continued into the second half as the Badgers tacked on 17 points in the fourth to win 45-7. Mertz finished 20-for-21 for 248 yards while the the Badgers amassed 430 total yards.

Bright Spots

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Barnes was the lone bright spot for the Illini. He finished with 11 tackles (7 solo) and fumble return for a touchdown.

Next Week

NCAA Football: Purdue at Nevada David Calvert-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini now have to regroup to face Purdue in Champaign on at 11:00 a.m. on Halloween. The Boilermakers play Iowa at home this afternoon.