Saturday, November 19, 2011
Final: Wisconsin 28, Illinois 17
By Adam Rittenberg
Montee Ball and the Wisconsin Badgers weren't about to let the Leaders Division slip through their fingers again.
After an uninspired first half that featured just 99 yards, the Badgers came alive and blitzed a mistake-prone Illinois team in the final 30 minutes. Wisconsin's 28-17 win means the Leaders title will be decided next week when it hosts Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium. Ohio State and Purdue are eliminated from the race.
Ball continued his assault on the record books with 38 carries for 224 yards and two touchdowns. He added a 5-yard reception to cap an insanely difficult 12 play, 30-yard drive. The junior had 77 rushing yards in a huge third quarter and added a 17-yard touchdown run early in the fourth as Wisconsin's offense caught fire.
Ball now has 30 touchdowns on the season, becoming just the fifth player in NCAA history to reach the mark. Right now, he's the best offensive player in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country. Heisman, anyone? He should at least be in the mix.
It wasn't a typical performance for Wisconsin's offense or senior quarterback Russell Wilson, who had just 90 pass yards, but the Badgers will take the win and move on.
Illinois became Illinois in the second half as mistakes once again piled up for Ron Zook's team. The Illini survived their lone miscue in the first half, a fumbled snap on a punt, but they imploded in the second half. Illinois committed turnovers on three of its first four possessions and went three-and-out on the other. Wisconsin defensive backs Antonio Fenelus and Aaron Henry picked off Reilly O'Toole, who surprisingly got more playing time than Nathan Scheelhaase after the break. Scheelhaase, by the way, threw a late interception to end Illinois' comeback hopes. Illinois still had a scoreless half, but this time it was the second, not the first. Ugh.
The Illini dropped their fifth consecutive game after their best start (6-0) since 1951. Whether Zook needed a win today to keep his job remains to be seen, but he can't be feeling too comfortable going into the final week of the regular season.
This would have been a devastating loss for Wisconsin, which hasn't looked the same away from Madison. Now the Badgers have a chance to win the division on their home field, although they'll need a more polished performance against Penn State's defense.