CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As unproductive as its offense was Saturday afternoon, there was never any danger of the University of Wisconsin football team’s College Football Playoff hopes going up in smoke at Memorial Stadium.
As usual, the defense had things under control.
But even the members of that unit weren’t completely thrilled with their performance during the No. 5 Badgers’ 24-10 victory over Illinois.
There were enough mental breakdowns and missed tackles to leave junior linebacker T.J. Edwards and his teammates with a bad taste in their mouths. The capper was giving up a late touchdown after overcoming their mistakes for the most part the rest of the game.
“That hurts,” Edwards said of a late drive that resulted in only the second touchdown the UW defense has allowed in its last 14 quarters of action. “It’s one of those things were you want to stop them and just end the game right there. That’s something we’re just going to have to clean up.”
The day started on the wrong note for UW (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) when junior safety D’Cota Dixon, essentially the quarterback of defense, was ruled out shortly before kickoff with a leg injury. Senior Joe Ferguson did a decent job filling in for Dixon, but there were times when it appeared the members of UW’s secondary weren’t always on the same page.
“There were some communication things,” UW senior cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “You could tell D’Cota wasn’t out there because there wasn’t a lot of the usual communication that we have. But ‘Ferg’ still stepped in and did a great job today and, shoot, made a big play at the end that basically sealed the game for us.”
Ferguson’s interception with 8 minutes, 36 seconds left ended a promising drive by the Fighting Illini (2-6, 0-5). Illinois has driven to the UW 18-yard line and had a chance to cut into its 17-3 deficit, but freshman quarterback Cam Thomas floated a pass that Ferguson stepped in front of at the 6-yard line for his second pick of the season.
Thomas, who rotated with sophomore Jeff George Jr., hurt the Badgers at times with his legs. He finished with 78 yards on 10 carries, production Illinois needed because it was without its top two tailbacks.
But it was an adventure when Illinois put the ball in the air. George and Thomas combined to go 9 of 31 for 152 yards, with the latter misfiring on nine of his 11 attempts and throwing two interceptions.
Tindal had the other pick for the Badgers, stepping in front of a third-down pass from Thomas on Illinois’ opening series.
“When you understand the defense, you get more picks and you get more fumble recoveries because you’re in the right spot,” Ferguson said. “Everybody has done a really good job of going to meet with the coaches and really knowing exactly what they’re going to do and where they’re supposed to be.”
UW’s defense forced multiple turnovers for the seventh time in eight games this season. Sandwiched between the two interceptions was a fumble recovery by senior defensive end Alec James in the second quarter after sophomore outside linebacker Tyler Johnson knocked the ball out of George’s hands on a sack.
The Badgers took over at midfield and turned the takeaway into points, going 50 yards in seven plays to build a 14-0 lead on a 2-yard run by Garrett Groshek.
“It’s something that we have to do as a defense to help spark the whole energy of the team,” Edwards said of forcing turnovers. “It’s so easy to feed off energy when guys are out there making plays and making huge, sudden changes. Especially if we can give our offense a short field, it helps a lot.”