There was a team on the field in Madison that played with far more physicality than the other. One that capitalized on the puzzling mistakes of the other. One that dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. One that left the building with a resounding 34-10 victory.
For the first time in 20 years, that team was Illinois.
The Illini made a statement on Saturday: Bret Bielema has arrived and he’s not afraid to beat you at your own game. All the things that we’re accustomed to seeing Wisconsin do to Illinois is what Illinois did to Wisconsin.
Wisconsin came into the game averaging 211 rushing yards per game as a team, headlined by the nation’s fifth-leading rusher Braelon Allen. Illinois held them to 2 yards rushing. TWO.
The Illini defensive front, led by Keith Randolph and Johnny Newton, continued to be a physical force, getting constant penetration and forcing Wisconsin to beat Illinois through the air, their biggest weakness through 4 weeks of the season. While quarterback Graham Mertz made some big throws in the first quarter to get the Badger offense moving, Ryan Walters and his unit quickly adjusted and Wisconsin had no answers offensively after their opening drive touchdown.
The defense made life tough on Mertz after an impressive first quarter, generating pressure both off a 4 man rush and some well-timed blitzing. He could never get comfortable after the opening drive, and Illinois punished him with 5 sacks.
Through 5 weeks of FBS play, the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation resides in Champaign, Illinois. 8.4 points allowed per game. 3 total touchdowns allowed in 5 games.
I’d say bringing the best defense in college football to the field with you each week is a good way to win some games.
The Illini offense — in their toughest test of the season to date — passed with flying colors. It wasn’t particularly explosive nor did it rely on big plays down the field, but it forced the ball into the teeth of the Badger defense and converted in the redzone. Tommy DeVito was once again accurate and decisive all afternoon, giving his receivers opportunities in 1-on-1 matchups to move the chains — whether that was. 34 points scored in Madison was once a fantasy. Now, it’s reality.
Chase Brown may have been stymied early, but it was only a matter of time before he broke loose. 5 games, 5 100+ yard performances. And a wave goodbye to Badger faithful following his season-long 49-yard touchdown run:
In past years, Illini teams would come into Madison and fall into a trap. The physical Badger defense would force them into mistakes early and take advantage to put the game away. On Saturday, it was Wisconsin who had the miscues — including two Graham Mertz interceptions and a muffed kickoff — to set the Illini up for success.
Illinois scored 21 points off of those 3 turnovers, cashing in on the opportunities they were given each time. They also converted on all 4 of their redzone trips — 3 for touchdowns and 1 for a field goal — a welcome sight after some early season concerns in that area. Again, very Wisconsin-like, but this time it was the Illini.
So where does Illinois go from here?
The Illini have two season-defining weeks of football looming.
Bret Bielema has established a culture and identity within the program that it has lacked for years. Illinois has a physicality and toughness that will allow them to compete with anybody in the conference. When Iowa and Minnesota come into Memorial Stadium, these guys expect to win.
If the Illini can defend their home field the next two Saturdays, they’ll control their own destiny in the Big Ten West and set themselves up for their first trip to the Big Ten Championship game.
A moment like that could be exactly what the program needs to ensure that out-wisconsining Wisconsin isn’t a one-off, it’s the new normal.
Let’s start by packing Memorial Stadium under the lights next Saturday.