CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It doesn’t get any worse than that.
Despite upsetting high-powered Maryland the week prior, the Illini came into Homecoming Saturday at Memorial Stadium as underdogs against the Wisconsin Badgers.
Just like last weekend, Bret Bielema’s squad went into the fourth quarter with a double-digit lead. However, Wisconsin scored 11 unanswered points to cut the lead to 21-18 before getting the ball back again with under four minutes left.
A few big plays later, the Badger offense sat three yards away from glory with just 27 seconds left. On third down, redshirt freshman Braedyn Locke dropped back to pass, and looking into the corner of the endzone, he let it fly.
Wide open. Touchdown.
Although the Illini put on a rushing clinic, it wasn’t enough. Locke’s heroics and Braelon Allen’s dominant second half propelled Wisconsin to outscore Illinois 18-0 in the fourth quarter and steal the win, 25-21.
HOW IT HAPPENED
In five of the first six games, the Illinois (3-5, 1-4 Big Ten) offense took its opening drives into opposing territory. Although the first drive ended that trend with a three-and-out, Johnny Newton forced a fumble on the ensuing possession, and the Illini took advantage with a 54-yard scoring drive.
The possession ended in a Luke Altmyer passing touchdown — one of his two in the first half.
With Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) trailing 14-0 late in the first half, Locke executed the two-minute drill to perfection. The quarterback’s 66 passing yards in the drive put lead running back Braelon Allen in position for Wisconsin’s first touchdown of the day. The four-yard run cut the Illinois lead in half heading into the locker room.
Up until the fourth quarter, the Illini still looked in control. Altmyer only threw for 100 yards, but another 100 yards on the ground made him the first Illinois rusher to reach the century mark this season.
Kaden Feagin complemented the quarterback with a season-best performance as well, rushing for 97 yards and a touchdown, and his second rushing touchdown of the year increased the lead to 21-7.
A field goal by Badger kicker Nathaniel Vakos cut the lead to 11, and at that point, the offense only had 223 total yards. However, it rattled off 150 yards in the final quarter, 140 of which came after Newton was ejected for targeting.
“Johnny’s a good player, but we can’t just implode when Johnny’s not out there,” Bielema said. “Guys gotta step up.”
Wisconsin used his absence to score 15 of its 18 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes to spoil Homecoming in Champaign.
“(It’s) obviously a tough one to swallow,” Bielema said. “I really thought we did enough to win this game.”
Following Tanner Mordecai suffering a broken hand in the loss to Iowa last week, the Wisconsin quarterback situation was a big question mark.
Only throwing 16-of-31 in his career heading into Saturday’s matchup, Locke proved himself in front of a big Homecoming crowd. The Mississippi State transfer threw for 240 yards and two touchdowns, with the go-ahead pass to offensive lineman Nolan Rucci sealing the win.
The Wisconsin rushing attack was expected to dictate the pace of the game, but midway through the third quarter, the second-best rushing offense in the Big Ten (185.8 yds/g) was limited to 38 rushing yards.
Allen turned the tides, exploding in the fourth quarter and finishing with 145 rushing yards and a touchdown.
At the end of the day, this Wisconsin comeback reiterates the story that has been this season for Illinois: hope followed by disappointment. Any momentum that Illinois gained from the big win against Maryland feels lost after Saturday night.
“I think momentum is huge, but I think the belief on game day is even bigger,” Bielema said. “I believe our guys 100% thought they were going to win this football game. I think that’s why the locker room hurts so bad right now.”
For the Badgers, a huge setback of Mordecai’s injury doesn’t hurt them just yet. Along with Iowa’s loss against Minnesota, this miraculous win still keeps Wisconsin very much in contention for the Big Ten West title.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
TARGETING: With the Illini leading 21-10 early in the fourth quarter, Johnny Newton recorded what looked to be his second sack of the day. However, the hit he delivered to Locke was deemed worthy of a roughing the passer penalty, and after review, was ruled targeting.
Johnny Newton ejected for targeting. Huge loss as he is the best player for any team on the field today. pic.twitter.com/hz7Ws24sPw— Illinois Football Focus (@IlliniFB) October 21, 2023
You be the judge. If you don’t think it’s targeting, you’re not alone. After the game, Bielema said he wasn’t given a single explanation by the refs.
“It just turned the game,” Bielema said. “It’s just maddening.”
The call left Illinois without its best defender, and the defense allowed Wisconsin to move the ball easily in its last two drives and leave Champaign victorious.
MOMENTUM SHIFT: Trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, Wisconsin drove down the field and was forced to settle for a short field goal. However, the hold for Vakos was bobbled, and the Badgers came away with no points.
BIG RISK: After the Wisconsin mishap, Illinois took the ball into Badger territory and faced a fourth down with two yards to go. Instead of risking a 39-yard field goal try into the wind, Barry Lunney Jr. left the offense on the field.
Altmyer escaped defenders in the backfield and ran 17 yards, nearly getting into the endzone. The Illini would extend the lead to 14-0 a few plays later.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
What a brilliant play call by Phil Longo.
It looks like age is finally catching up to the Galloping Ghost.
First time Red Grange loses the between 3rd/4th quarter race. I gotta give it to the guy tho, I doubt I’ll look that good at 120-years-old. pic.twitter.com/cdch5K8wou— Illinois Football Focus (@IlliniFB) October 21, 2023
Following the defeat, the five-loss Illini head into the bye week toward the bottom of the Big Ten.