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‘It was awesome’: Illinois wins at Wisconsin for first time since 2002

Bret Bielema wins big in his return to Madison.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

MADISON, Wis. — Bret Bielema is going swimming Saturday night.

After Illinois’ win — its first at Camp Randall in 20 years — Bielema was surprised by his wife and two daughters.

“All my girls wanted to know is if we’re gonna go swimming tonight,” Bielema joked after the game. “They don’t seem to care about the history.”

But Bielema does care about the history — and the moment.

A decade after leaving Wisconsin for a head coaching job at Arkansas, Bielema returned to Madison on Saturday with Illinois. And behind a typical Bielema gameplan — run the ball, score in the redzone and play defense — the Illini won at a place they hadn’t since 2002, all part of a surreal 34-10 blowout of the Badgers.

In his orange quarter zip, Bielema heard his fair share of “boos” from the 73,000 Badger faithful, but it was no match for the performance of his quarterback, Tommy DeVito.

Illinois (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) couldn’t get much going on the ground with superstar tailback Chase Brown, but DeVito picked up the slack, especially in the redzone where he converted on three quarterback sneaks for scores — including two in the first half — setting Illinois up for a 14-10 halftime lead.

“That’s all on the offensive line, just moving bodies,” DeVito said. “All I have to do is fall forward.”

Both of those first-half scores were sparked by Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz, who threw for a pair of interceptions on bad, broken down plays.

“When we get points after a turnover, it’s huge,” DeVito said.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

Coming off a record-setting performance against the Illini in 2020, Mertz had his shining moments — notably, the game’s first drive — and completed his first four passes. But Ryan Walters and the Illinois defense quickly settled in, holding the Badgers (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) to just one field goal over the ensuing three quarters.

But the biggest performance on Saturday came from Illinois’ rush defense, shutting down All-American back Braelon Allen to 2 — yes, TWO — yards on seven attempts. As a team, the Badgers had 2 rushing yards on 24 attempts. Unbelievable.

By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, much of the Badger student section — and many of the 73,000 Wisconsin fans — were heading for the exit.

For Illinois, that’s the expectation from now on.

“It was awesome,” said sixth-year lineman Alex Palczewski. “We haven’t done this in 20 years, and coming here in [2018] and [2020] and taking a look around today at the student section, this is the new norm [for Illinois]. It’s not a one time thing, and tomorrow, it’s on to Iowa.”


PI BAIL-OUT: After Illinois was set up at the 16-yard-line following a Mertz interception, the Illini had 2nd-and-goal at the 1. Illinois was unsuccessful three times, but was bailed out by pass interference on fourth down. DeVito ran it in on a QB sneak on the ensuing first down, tying the game up at 7.

4TH-AND-4: With kicker Caleb Griffin battling an injury and Fabrizio Pinto struggling on kickoffs, Illinois decided to go for it on 4th-and-4 early in the third quarter. That decision turned out to work in the Illini’s favor when the drive was capped with DeVito’s third rushing TD. (Note: Griffin made a 44-yard field goal later in the quarter.)

PUT IT AWAY: Chase Brown had a relatively quiet day by his standards, but he picked up a 49-yard rushing score midway through the third quarter.

“At the halftime break, I told them to keep doing what we’re doing, and one of them is gonna pop,” Bielema said. “And then Chase broke one.”

Brown finished with 129 yards and has more than 100 yards in each of the Illini’s five games this season.


Big Two-Time Touchdown Tommy.



GUNSLINGER GRAHAM: After completing 20 of 21 passes against the Illini in an empty Camp Randall in 2020, Graham Mertz completed his first 4 passes.

He’s not a Heisman candidate, but he sure loves playing Illinois at home. His first incompletion on Saturday came on his fifth attempt — an interception setting the Illini up in the redzone.

7,264 DAYS: Saturday’s win at Camp Randall is Illinois’ first in Madison in 7,264 days — Nov. 11, 2002. Y’all remember that 37-20 win? I don’t! I was 5.

“A lot of really good football players have come through in the past 20 years and haven’t been able to do this,” Bielema said.



Illinois returns home for four of its next five games, starting next week with a visit from Bielema’s alma mater, the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Kickoff for the Oct. 8 contest is set for under the lights at 6:30 p.m.

“It’s a perfect kickoff time,” Bielema said. “Let’s make Memorial Stadium what it should be.”