MADISON – Paul Chryst’s team didn’t hold a clinic on how to play clean football Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw two interceptions, the defense gave up an 80-yard touchdown run and several other big plays and Rafael Gaglianone missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt.
Yet despite those shortcomings, UW made enough big plays on offense and forced five first-half turnovers en route to an easy 49-20 victory over an outmanned Illinois team in front of an announced crowd of 79,736.
“That game had a little bit of everything in it,” Chryst said, whose Big Ten mark is 25-5. “I think there’s enough that we did well to give us a chance to win, get the win. Certainly some areas we’ve got to continue to keep working on and clean up.”
Bottom line: UW (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten), despite its weaknesses and its injury issues on defense, is still a legitimate contender in the West Division. Remember, UW Saturday was without safeties D’Cota Dixon (leg), Scott Nelson (leg) and Reggie Pearson (leg) and defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk (ankle).
Illinois (3-4, 1-3) is a young team that remains in rebuilding mode and isn’t good enough to upset the better teams in the league. The Illini are 8-23 under fourth-year coach Lovie Smith.
“You saw the score so I can’t say that anyone did well today,” Smith said when asked about the performance of his players. “I don’t think that any of us played well, coached well. Wisconsin dominated us in every way.”
UW’s victory, coming one week after suffering a 25-point loss at Michigan, set up an intriguing West Division battle at Northwestern.
The Wildcats (4-3, 4-1) remained in sole possession of first place by rallying for an 18-15 victory over Rutgers.
Northwestern has won three consecutive games since suffering a 20-17 home loss to Michigan. The Wildcats built a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter before faltering in the second half.
BOX SCORE: UW 49, Illinois 20
One significant edge UW appeared to have entering the day was its running game against the Illini defense. UW was No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 6 nationally in rushing (269.7 yards per game); Illinois came 106th nationally in rushing defense (199.5 ypg).
Tailback Jonathan Taylor led UW’s rushing attack with 159 yards on 27 carries. Taylor, who came in averaging 158.3 rushing yards per game, is the only FBS player to rush for at least 100 yards in every game this season. He pushed his season total to 1,109 yards and thus became the ninth player in school history to reach the 1,000-yard mark in consecutive seasons.
“We want to be one of the best running back groups in the country,” Taylor said. “That comes with being consistent.
“We know each and every game, whenever any of our numbers are called we’ve got to make sure we execute.”
Taiwan Deal rushed 12 times for a season-high 111 yards and two touchdowns. Garrett Groshek added 33 yards on just four carries as UW finished with 357 yards on 54 carries.
“I think we do that every week,” fullback Alec Ingold, who scored two touchdowns, said when asked if UW thought it could run the ball on the Illini. “We think we’ve got a good scheme and what we saw on tape all week really came to life.”
Hornibrook missed several throws early and had the two interceptions but made enough plays to help keep the offense somewhat balanced.
Hornibrook finished 13 of 22 for 188 yards, with three touchdowns. He hit tight end Jake Ferguson for 27 yards, tight end Kyle Penniston for 11 yards and Ingold for 19 yards.
The Illini, who came in averaging 228.8 rushing yards per game, rushed 36 times for 210 yards, an average of 5.8 yards per carry, against UW. Reggie Corbin had an 80-yard touchdown run and finished with 100 yards on nine carries and Ra’Von Bonner added an 18-yard touchdown run.
But Illinois quarterbacks AJ Bush and MJ Rivers both struggled to pass. Bush was benched early after completing just 2 of 8 passes for 10 yards, with two interceptions. Rivers, who isn’t as effective as a runner as Bush is, completed 7 of 13 attempts for 80 yards.
“We just felt like we needed to go in a little bit of a different direction passing the football,” Smith said. “I thought he would give us our best chance to do that.”
UW endured two difficult stretches along the way to the 29-point victory.
The first came after Corbin’s 80-yard touchdown run, which allowed the Illini to pull within 14-7 with 6 minutes 19 seconds left in the first half. That came one play after Gaglianone’s missed field-goal attempt.
The second came after Hornibrook’s second interception, when Bonner scored on an 18-yard run to help cut UW’s lead to 28-17 with 10:57 left in the third quarter.
Hornibrook threw touchdown passes of 27 yards to Ferguson and 11 yards Penniston to help pad the lead to 28-7. Both touchdowns came after Illinois turnovers, an interception by nose tackle Olive Sagapolu and a fumble recovery by cornerback Rachad Wildgoose.
UW answered Bonner’s touchdown with a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by Deal’s 39-yard run for a 35-17 lead.
“I wouldn’t say nervous,” senior offensive lineman Michael Deiter said of those two junctures. “It was: ‘This isn’t where we want to be. We want to be better so we can be in better control of this game..
“No matter who you are playing you should always be confident that you can win a football game.
“There is still stuff we can get better (at), no doubt. But we won and there’s a ton of good stuff that we did.”