The now-No. 20 Wisconsin Badgers upended unranked Illinois on Saturday in a game where the ground game ate up 357 yards while the UW defense forced five turnovers.
It was a much-needed bounce-back win for the Badgers after a rough loss at the Big House to Michigan, though there were still opportunities to grow in the win against the Illini.
Our writers came together in another installment of our weekly roundtable, which has been lightly edited, about what went well, what needs cleaning up, and what we all should be looking forward to against Northwestern this upcoming Saturday (11 a.m. CT, FOX).
THE GOOD: What stood out to you the most in Saturday’s win?
Tyler Hunt: The Badgers finally dismantled an inferior opponent. Overall, that stood out to me the most simply because it hasn’t happened this season. Every game Wisconsin was supposed to run away with seemed to be a struggle to put away. This time they were able to just assert their dominance. The run game is just bludgeoning opponents, and in turn, the offense is looking much better as a whole. The defense looked good forcing turnovers and pressure for basically the first time this season. The young guys deserve a lot of credit for stepping into roles they didn’t expect in August. They’re only going to get better with the more confidence they get.
Kevin O’Connell: It was great to see Wisconsin get back to the basics and manhandle Illinois with the running game. Both Jonathan Taylor and Taiwan Deal finished the game with over 100 yards rushing and the offensive line seems to be hitting their stride in recent weeks. I thought the defense also played very well. It looks like outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel is finally healthy, and the Badgers’ front seven applied a ton of pressure, something they have struggled with this season. This was an Illinois team the Badgers expected to beat, and it was encouraging to see them bounce back from the tough loss a week ago at Michigan with a comfortable victory over the Illini.
Owen Riese: Wisconsin really established themselves on a team that they should have. Were there hiccups? Sure, but Wisconsin dispatched of Illinois, as they should have. The Badgers benefitted from both an ever improving run game with Taylor and Deal, while redshirt freshman Jake Ferguson continues to emerge as one of the premier tight ends in the conference. The Badgers also took the ball away with fervor against the Illini, something they haven’t always done this season.
THE BAD: What needs to be cleaned up?
Owen: Wisconsin, for all of their injury and talent shortcomings at certain spots this season, has fallen victim more than desired to the big play. Reggie Corbin and RaVon Bonner’s touchdowns were on long plays—and Bonner’s, a missed open field tackle by safety Eric Burrell—allowed the score to happen.
Tyler: I know quarterback Alex Hornibrook gets a lot of unfair criticism, but the two interceptions were not great. Even the one that got reversed from an Illinois penalty was thrown into quadruple coverage. With a young, learning defense you don’t want to put them in unfavorable positions that only help the opponent more. Also as Owen touched on, the long chunk plays need to get cleaned up. They may not hurt too much against Illinois, but teams like Purdue and Penn State can run away with games when that happens.
Kevin: Hornibrook. Even in a 29-point victory, I was still hoping for more when it comes to Hornibrook’s play under center. He threw two more interceptions, a third was called back on a penalty, and continues to look completely lost whenever an opposing defense brings pressure. Hornibrook has now played in 33 games as a Badger, and while he has won plenty of them, there is still tons of room for improvement. After his stellar performance in last year’s Orange Bowl, I was expecting a breakout year, but his limited athletic ability and below average arm just hasn’t been good enough for Wisconsin to reach their preseason expectations. It is also a bit disappointing to see head coach Paul Chryst refuse to put backup Jack Coan in at the end of the blowout this week, instead choosing to go with third stringer Danny Vanden Boom. I understand wanting to stand by your starter, but at some point it would be nice to see what the Badgers have in Coan, especially knowing that Chryst used a two-quarterback system two years ago with Hornibrook and Bart Houston.
GAME BALLS: Who deserves them?
Tyler: I’d give a game ball to safety Evan Bondoc, Deal, Ferguson but also Van Ginkel. He’s battled injuries all season but he started to look more like himself on Saturday. He had six total tackles, a sack, and seemed to be around the ball on each and every play. AVG is an excellent pass rusher and play maker, so getting him back to his true form like that will be huge for the Badgers defense as a whole. For a team struggling to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, he will be crucial down the stretch.
Kevin: Deal and Taylor are obvious answers, but I’ll go with another offensive playmaker in Ferguson. The redshirt freshman has been a revelation this season, turning into one of Hornibrook’s favorite targets and a consistent redzone threat with his 6’5’ frame. Ferguson led the Badgers in receiving on Saturday with 62 yards on three catches and came down with his third touchdown of the season.
Owen: Gonna give out two: Deal and Bondoc. Two guys who have been in the program for five years, and are reaping the benefits of their dedication. It’s not an outward message from Wisconsin, but a common phrase in football programs is, “Those who stay will be champions.” Deal, who has basically lost the past two years due to injury, and Bondoc who walked on and sat behind more talented players, are making the most of their opportunities.
UP NEXT: NORTHWESTERN. Quick keys to the game to upend the Wildcats in Evanston?
Tyler: Gotta wake up and start fast. Evanston at 11 a.m. CT is a tough place to play. Most of the time it seems like opponents are still asleep at the start of the game, and Northwestern seems to take advantage of that. The crowd, or lack there of, always seems to get to people. If that happens, you’re in an uphill battle the rest of the game trying to make up for the mistakes in the start.
Kevin: Northwestern has been a very up and down team this year, evidenced in the fact that they have impressive road wins against Purdue and Michigan State but a home loss to Akron and close wins against Big Ten doormats Nebraska and Rutgers. We all know how difficult Evanston has been for Wisconsin in recent years. The Wildcats will no doubt be up for this game, and I think it’ll be important for the Badgers to get out to a quick start. This will be a good test for Wisconsin’s young secondary, as Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson and wide receiver Flynn Nagel are two of the best offensive players in the Big Ten.
Owen: Don’t turn the ball over. Northwestern is a notoriously difficult trip historically for Wisconsin. The Wildcats have proven to be tough to beat. The Badgers can’t beat themselves and expect to come out of Evanston to win the game.