MADISON, Wis. – A couple of missed opportunities in the first half. A tough penalty. A shanked punt.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman said he needs his team to shrug it off when things don’t go the Illini’s way. Instead, the misfortune piled up in a 31-14 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday.
“We’ve just got to be able to respond when something doesn’t occur the way we want it to occur,” Beckman said. “Things just seem to snowball on us. We’ve got to learn to react in a positive way and keep on fighting for four quarters.”
Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) came into Saturday with an offense that ranked last in the conference overall and was putting up just 56 yards rushing a game.
But the Badgers found ways to capitalize on the Illinois miscues, as Joel Stave threw for two touchdowns and Montee Ball rushed for 116 yards on 19 carries.
Wisconsin rushed for 173 yards, 96 in the fourth quarter.
The offensive struggles of the Illini (2-4, 0-2) continued, however, with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase the only positive. He finished with 178 yards passing and 84 rushing as Illinois gained 287 yards overall.
Scheelhaase ran for a 5-yard touchdown in the first quarter and threw for an 8-yard touchdown to Ryan Lankford to make it 24-14 late in the game.
But Jared Abbrederis fielded the ensuing onside kick, and Ball scored his second touchdown to snuff out any hopes of an Illinois comeback.
Ball has 59 rushing TDs in his career, nine shy of the NCAA record.
Abbrederis caught Stave’s 59-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that put Wisconsin up 24-7 and gave him his third consecutive game with more than 100 receiving yards since returning from an injury. He finished with seven catches for 117 yards.
The Badgers capitalized on a pair of Illinois miscues for their other second-half points.
With the game tied at 7-7, Stave hit Derek Watt for 26 yards, and Illinois defensive back Terry Hawthorne was called for a personal foul on the hit, putting the ball at the Illinois 33.
After the collision, Hawthorne lay motionless on the field and was put on a stretcher and taken off in an ambulance, giving a thumbs up as he was loaded into the vehicle.
The drive ended when Kyle French made a 46-yard field goal.
Beckman said a CT scan was negative and Hawthorne was expected to be on the team flight home.
Illinois’ next drive stalled near midfield, and a shanked 10-yard punt by Justin DuVernois gave Wisconsin good field position. James White had a 22-yard run, Stave hit Abbrederis for 15 yards, and Ball ran it in from 9 yards out to put Wisconsin up 17-7.
“We’ve got to learn how to respond,” Beckman said. “If it’s not a good play like a shanked punt or something like that scenario, we’ve got to react in a positive way instead of letting it hurt us for the remainder of the game.”
As Wisconsin’s offense has struggled, coach Bret Bielema has gone back and forth between Stave and Danny O’Brien at quarterback. Stave started the game, but Bielema went to a third option at the end of the first quarter, bringing in Curt Phillips.
Phillips has had multiple surgeries on his right knee, has thrown just 13 passes in his career and hadn’t played since the 2009 regular season finale at Hawaii. He handed off to end the first quarter, kept the ball for a 2-yard loss to open the second and gave way to Stave on third down.
The juggling didn’t work. Stave was picked off, with Steve Hull returning the ball to the Wisconsin 28. Scheelhaase completed a pass for 23 yards to give the Illini first-and-goal at the 5 before running it in on the next play.
Stave, who later hit White for a 62-yard touchdown on a screen pass, said coming out of the game didn’t hurt his rhythm and the ball got away from him on the interception. He finished with 254 yards through the air.
Illinois also failed to take advantage of opportunities early. Illinois’ second drive of the first half stalled at the 30, and a 47-yard field goal attempt was short and well right. Up 7-0, the Illini then seemed in good position to pick up another score after a 28-yard Wisconsin punt put them near midfield. But Scheelhaase was picked off by Devin Smith, and Wisconsin later tied it on the long screen pass.
Beckman was also caught during the game broadcast using chewing tobacco on the sideline, a violation of NCAA rules. He said after the game he was unsure what kind of fine he may face from the Big Ten.
“That’s a bad habit of mine,” he said. “I apologize for that. I guess it’s the stress. But there is no excuse for that. It will be stopped.”