- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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You might look at the final score of Wisconsin's win over Illinois, 31-14, and conclude the Badgers are back.
That's not really true. The Badgers' offense still isn't quite where it once was. Yet the way things are going in the Leaders Division, it might be enough to play in the Big Ten championship game.
The Badgers weren't exactly impressive most of the way against Illinois at home, scoring just seven points in the first half. But the struggling Illini had even fewer answers, and Wisconsin was able to pull away late.
There were still some major red flags for the Badgers, not the least of which was their continued inability to run the ball with the power and ease we've grown accustomed to seeing. Well into the fourth quarter, they had just 94 rushing yards on 24 carries as a team, an average of fewer than 4 yards per carry. A strong finish against a tiring Illinois offense made the final stats look much better, and Montee Ball -- who had only 12 yards at halftime and 36 early in the fourth quarter --- finished with 116 yards and two touchdowns.
Two big plays -- which were really a rarity for most of this slog of a game -- made the difference.
Late in the first half, offensive coordinator Matt Canada dialed up a screen pass at the perfect time against the Illinois blitz. James White made the catch and darted 62 yards for a touchdown to make it a 7-7 game.
In the fourth quarter, Joel Stave found Jared Abbrederis for a 59-yard touchdown that really broke the game open. Stave threw for 254 yards, but he had several receivers open down the field that he couldn't connect with earlier in the game. Even with the running game not doing that much for three quarters, the play-action pass created lots of opportunities for Wisconsin. If Stave can hit some of those, that could really open some things up for this offense.
Illinois has been searching for an identity on offense all season and got a spark from a healthy Nathan Scheelhaase. The junior quarterback looked as spry as he's been since suffering an ankle injury in Week 1. That allowed him to use his feet to extend plays and pick up yardage. Scheelhaase led the team in rushing with 84 yards and threw for 178 yards and a touchdown.
But the search for more playmakers continues for first-year coach Tim Beckman. Illinois had only 22 rushing yards outside of Scheelhaase, and too often he was scrambling because there weren't any receivers open. Credit the Wisconsin defense for a solid game, but Illinois is really having trouble finding ways to score. And it will probably have trouble finding many wins the rest of the way, though at least the team brought a lot of energy to the start of this one.
The scariest moment of the game came when cornerback Terry Hawthorne was taken off the field in an ambulance after he collided with Wisconsin fullback Derek Watt. Hawthorne was motionless on his back for a while, but reports after the game indicated that Hawthorne had movement in all his extremities.
All in all, Wisconsin can't complain too much about a 17-point conference victory. With Purdue falling flat against Michigan today, the Badgers still look like the team to beat for the Leaders Division berth in Indianapolis. Next week's game in West Lafayette could well determine things, because if the Badgers win they will have a virtual two-game lead over both Purdue and Illinois.
They might not be back, per se, but they could easily get back to Indy with the way things are going.
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