CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — After another sluggish start Saturday at Illinois, the University of Wisconsin football team looked to its star freshman tailback for the spark it needed.
Jonathan Taylor broke off runs of 7, 10 and 29 yards on the Badgers’ 92-yard touchdown drive late in the first quarter — a march UW ended with 12 straight handoffs.
“He definitely makes some plays, even when things are tough to get the ball moving,” UW quarterback Alex Hornibrook said. "He’ll break a few tackles and get some first downs.
"Obviously, you can’t rely on him all the time."
Taylor left the game with a left leg injury on UW’s next drive, leaving its offense severely hampered in an ugly, 24-10 victory at Memorial Stadium.
The Badgers managed just 104 total yards in the second half, 41 of which came on the ground. A better opponent may have capitalized on such ineffectiveness, but fifth-ranked UW (8-0, 5-0) remained undefeated entering the most difficult stretch of its season.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst said after the game that he doesn’t know Taylor’s status for next week’s game at Indiana and that UW will find out more about his availability during practice.
Saturday’s underwhelming performance wasn’t completely about Taylor’s absence, though. He gained 73 yards on 12 carries before exiting and led the way on the Badgers’ most impressive drive, but the Illini (2-6, 0-5) attempted to make life as difficult as possible for UW from the opening kickoff.
Illinois, which lost its sixth straight game, stuffed Taylor behind the line of scrimmage twice over the Badgers’ first two drives, both three-and-outs. The 15-play drive also began as a three-and-out before officials flagged the Illini for an illegal substitution as UW lined up to punt.
“If you come into a game a little relaxed, you’re going to get exposed,” UW left tackle Michael Deiter said. "We didn’t have a good series, and that’s got to wake you up. … You want to start fast and be crisp, but it’s not always going to go that way. You’ve got to step back and keep fighting."
UW appeared to wake up after the penalty, but that quickly derailed after Taylor’s injury.
The play after Taylor’s final carry, Hornibrook threw an interception directly to safety Bennett Williams. Tight end Troy Fumagalli had beaten his man and broken open, but Hornibrook said he didn’t see Williams dropping into Fumagalli’s path until he had released the pass.
“It was man-to-man coverage, and once I saw that I wasn’t expecting anybody to be underneath him,” Hornibrook said. "I should have been able to see that, but I was thinking man coverage and no one should be sitting under it."
It was Hornibrook’s eighth interception this season and seventh in UW’s five Big Ten games. He finished 10-of-19 passing for just 135 yards.
"Obviously, he’d like to have the one pass back,” Chryst said. "But I thought his decision-making on a lot of plays was good. It was tough. I didn’t feel like a lot of times offensively we were really in rhythm."
Thankfully for UW, its defense once again played like one of the best units in the country.
Outside linebacker Tyler Johnson’s strip-sack of Illinois true freshman quarterback Cam Thomas set up the Badgers at midfield, and with help from a targeting penalty after Quintez Cephus’ 13-yard catch, UW capitalized.
Walk-on redshirt freshman Garrett Groshek, the most productive back after Taylor’s exit with 51 yards on 12 carries, scored on a 2-yard run to give the Badgers a 14-0 lead with 7 minutes, 7 seconds remaining in the first half.
Inside linebacker Chris Orr prevented a possible touchdown by sacking Jeff George Jr. on the next drive, and safety Joe Ferguson intercepted Thomas with 8:36 left in the fourth quarter when Illinois threatened to score again.
Ferguson’s interception set up UW’s offense to cross the 50-yard line for the first and only time in the second half, leading to a successful trick play near the goal line. Hornibrook threw a pass backward to Deiter, and the tackle ran it in for a 4-yard score to put the Badgers up 24-3 with 3:54 remaining.
The fun wrinkle didn’t erase the fact that UW’s offense struggled for large portions of the game — something far from uncommon for the Badgers this season.
They don’t have many, if any, weeks remaining before facing an opponent capable of turning that inconsistency into a defeat.
“We’re definitely not worried about it,” Deiter said. "I’m confident that we’re going to put together a complete game soon. … You go into each game with confidence that you’re going to have a complete game. That’s what we’ll do this next week, and hopefully we can put it on the field.
“Whenever you win a football game on the road in the Big Ten, you’re happy. … We’re 8-0. There’s no reason to not be happy. But we do know that we can be better."