For a 1-3 team looking for any semblance of positivity, facing another struggling team like Illinois, even on the road, seemed like just the medicine Wisconsin needed.
Looks weren’t deceiving.
The Badgers controlled the game – especially the line of scrimmage – on both sides of the ball to pick up their first Big Ten win of the season, a 24-0 whitewashing of the Illini.
It was Wisconsin’s first shutout of Illinois since 1977 and first in Champaign since 1921, spoiling the Illini’s homecoming and Bret Bielema’s first matchup against his former team (also the first time a Badgers team squared off against one of their former head coaches since 1895).
Bielema had claimed during the week Illinois would try to run the ball against a tough Wisconsin defense, but that plan never came to fruition; the Illini attempted passes on their first six plays and never got the run game going. Or the pass game, for that matter.
Illinois never crossed midfield until the final drive of the game against backups as Wisconsin held the Illini to 93 total yards – seventh-lowest total allowed in a game in school history – including just 26 rushing.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, went back to its identity – running with abandon all day. The Badgers finished with 391 yards on the ground, their most in a game since 2019 and highest total on the road since 2012. Both Chez Mellusi (21 carries, 145 yards, TD) and freshman Braelon Allen (18-131-1) eclipsed 100 yards rushing.
The win didn’t cure everything which ails Wisconsin, of course. Graham Mertz, who left the previous game with an injury, had trouble throwing deep and threw a pick, one of two Badgers turnovers without any defensive takeaways. Plus, Wisconsin “only” scored 24 points against a team it normally would steamroll, not exactly a sign the offensive problems are a thing of the past.
But things sure could have been a heck of a lot worse.
Here's a recap of Saturday’s game:
PLAYER OF THE GAME
The Badgers’ offensive line has been, rightfully, criticized often this season. There will be no such negative remarks on this day. Even with right tackle Logan Bruss sidelined (Tanor Bortolini, who had played all of nine offensive snaps this season filled in), Wisconsin ran for 6.4 yards per carry against Illinois and was never tackled behind the line of scrimmage. It was just an efficient ground-and-pound attack. Mertz was never sacked, and while Illinois had four QB hurries, the Badgers quarterback was never hit. It’s the kind of game Wisconsin is used to from its offensive line but hadn’t seen lately.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT ME
Wisconsin’s defense was suffocating. The Badgers were credited with five quarterback hurries but it seemed like more than that. Illinois QBs were often rushing throws. Outside linebacker Noah Burks had three of those, not to mention team-highs of six tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. Burks’ fellow outside backer Nick Herbig tallied three passes broken up – two of those came after he hit the quarterback as he was winding up to throw. Since 2000, Herbig is the first Badgers linebacker with three PBU in a game. Every Wisconsin defender who had 3+ over that span was a cornerback or safety with the exception of JJ Watt, who had three at UNLV on Sept. 4, 2010.
Wisconsin relied heavily on the run game in this one, but quarterback Graham Mertz did have some key plays. On the opening drive of the third quarter Mertz came through with three third-down conversions. With just 15 passing yards at the half – yes, 15 – on a third-and-12, the QB hit Jake Ferguson for 13 (it also extended Ferguson’s reception streak to a school-record 39 games). Later, on a third-and-2 a quick flip to running back Brady Schipper picked up four. Finally, on a third-and-6, Mertz hit a crossing Chimere Dike for seven yards. Two plays later, Chez Mellusi ran for a 15-yard score to put Wisconsin up 17-0. With Illinois’ lack of offense, making it a three-score game, even at this point, it felt like this one was over.
To further prove just how dominant Wisconsin was in the run game, the Badgers had 15 chunk plays – 10+ yards – on the ground. Wisconsin had just 14 such plays combined over its first four contests. Those big runs accounted for 216 yards. Again, showing just how the Badgers ran over Illinois, that means they had 175 yards on their other 45 carries.
THEY SAID IT
"Jimmy (Leonhard) and our defensive coaches put together a good plan and our kids they bring it to life, I think they're playing with great energy. One thing we challenged with everybody is our defense has been playing well, let's give them a lead and play with that. But there's just a lot of guys who are making plays, different guys making plays, and that's been fun to see." -- head coach Paul Chryst
"I thought our backs ran really hard, were physical. For those runs to happen, to be able to do it consistently, a lot of guys are involved. I thought the receivers did a good job of being a part of it, the tight ends -- it takes everyone. It was good to be able to do."
"I put an emphasis on running hard and making sure I don't go down easy." -- running back Braelon Allen
"I've been labeled as a scatback and I don't really care for that. I feel like I'm a very balanced running back and I definitely ran with a purpose today. ... I think my mindset pretty much the whole day was I really don't want to make anyone miss, I want to run through everybody." -- running back Chez Mellusi
"Talk is cheap at this point, we need to go out and show it. And we did a great job of showing it today and we need to continue to improve. ... We did, we needed this win today." -- safety Collin Wilder
"To me, that's what Wisconsin football is -- running the ball down their throat, taking all that time off the clock. ... It's definitely a lot nicer as a defense to get those breaks." -- outside linebacker Noah Burks
"I get it, I know it's a nice storyline but those are people from my past that I have a great relationship with that has nothing to do with the moment we're in now, which is two teams competing in the Big Ten West." -- Illinois head coach Bret Bielema on facing Wisconsin, the team he once coached
Wisconsin returns home for a primetime game – and an unusual midseason nonconference game – with Army coming into Camp Randall Stadium. The Black Knights are 4-1, but all four wins have come against teams without a winning record. Army, which was off this weekend, lost at Ball State on Oct. 2, 28-16. Army brings a triple-option offense to Madison, having run the ball 325 times compared to just 33 pass attempts. The Badgers’ top-rated run defense will face a team which averaged 318.2 rush yards per game.