Starting the second half by giving up a seventy-yard scoring drive, the Badgers were in trouble. A couple of nice passes and a couple of hard runs, and the Badgers looked to be in business, but a hold on Oglesby wiped out a big gain to Graham on first down, and the Badgers were facing 1st and 20 from our own 48. Clay ran for three yards, then Sherer threw incomplete, and Badgers the world around sighed and thought, "here we go . . ." Most importantly, the defense, which had more or less held up its end of the bargain to that point was surely disappointed in yet another opportunity about to go by the wayside. 3rd and 17: how many of these have the Badgers converted on this season?
Gilreath, 48 yards the house.
That didn't win the game, but that one play changed everything. It gave the defense confidence. They started flying around just a bit more (and picked off two passes). It gave the crowd life. It gave the offense, most importantly Sherer, life. And it gave the Badgers a chance at saving the season. No, there will be no Capital One Bowl (nor better), but there is still some pride on the table, and that was the play the Badgers needed to fight for it.
I'm happy I was wrong about the result yesterday. Here's a follow-up on the keys of the game:
(1) Will Juice, et al., protect the ball? A resounding "no." His first pick, though he was on the move, was a terrible throw that sailed on him, ended an Illini drive, and led to the Badgers' first points. His second was underthrown into coverage allowing Wisconsin to build on its momentum after tying the game. And the third? It wasn't really his fault, but it ended Illinois' chance at a comeback.
(2) Will Wisconsin run effectively on first down? Not really. In the first quarter, yes, and sporadically throughout the rest of the game, but not enough to consistently give the Badgers a short field on 2nd and 3rd down.
(3) Will Sherer get Beckum and Graham the ball? Sort of. Beckum dropped two key passes (one really easy one) early and later left the game with an ankle injury. Graham was steady and made some key plays (including one that was negated by the Oglesby hold). But Sherer tried to force throws to his tight ends a couple of times.
(4) Will the Badgers' secondary limit Benn's YAC? A little. He had one big one and was trouble for Wisconsin all afternoon, but Juice's poor game helped out a lot.
(5) Will Gilreath shorten the field returning kicks? He did ok, but more importantly took the 3rd and 17 pass 52-yards for the tying score in the 3rd quarter. That was the play of the game.
Obviously I was happy with the outcome and the future is brighter already. That said, all is not right in Mad-town just yet. The Illini turnovers were the difference in the game, and our offense is still very shaky in passing situations. If Beckum is out again (I suspect he is), it won't help. I liked seeing Clay and Brown with the ball, and maybe, just maybe, the confidence the Badgers got from a solid win will carry over in the visit to East Lansing next week. They'll need it.