Illini snap Wisconsin's Streak; Win Second Straight Over Ranked Opponents
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. Thanks to another stellar running effort, Illinois (5-1 overall, 3-0 in Big Ten) snapped No. 5 Wisconsin's (5-1, 2-1) fourteen-game win streak. The Illini rushed for 289 yards on 44 carries (6.6 yards per carry), and made the big plays when they needed them.
Rashard Mendenhall led the running attack, gaining 160 yards on just 19 carries, and scoring two rushing touchdowns. "[Rashard] has the hands, the blocking ability, the jets," said Illini Linebacker J Leman, who had a game-high twelve tackles. "I think he's the best back in the Big Ten. I'll take that to the bank."
Mendenhall took it to the house with a 32-yard run in the first quarter to give the Illini a lead they would never relinquish. He added a receiving touchdown in the second quarter that stretched the Illini lead to 17-0.
Wisconsin fought back to get within a score at 17-13, thanks largely to the passing effort of senior quarterback Tyler Donovan. For the game, Donovan threw for 392 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Travis Beckum was his favorite target, with 11 catches and 160 yards. It was Beckum's second straight game with double-digit receptions.
But Donovan threw two big interceptions in the fourth quarter that ensured the Illinois victory. Trailing 24-19, Donovan threw one across the middle that was picked off by Illini DB Kevin Mitchell. Wisconsin got the ball back just two minutes later, but Illinois corner Vontae Davis intercepted Donovan on the second play of the drive.
Illinois then embarked on a 71 yard touchdown drive, capped by a 5-yard TD run by reserve QB Eddie McGee. (Starter Juice Williams, who threw for 121 yards and ran for 105, left in the fourth quarter with a knee injury; he reportedly will start next week)
Wisconsin scored a touchdown to tighten the game to 31-26, and forced a fourth down with just over one minute remaining. The Illini could have punted, but instead, Illini Coach Ron Zook went for the win. Eddie McGee converted the QB sneak to get the first down, and Illinois was able to run out the clock.
The Illini had not beaten a top-five team since 1989, when they beat No. 5 USC 14-13. Today's victory also marks their second straight win against ranked opponents, after defeating No. 19 Penn St. last Saturday. The Illini had not accomplished that feat since 1959.
With back-to-back statement victories, the Illini should be in the Top 25 when the rankings come out on Monday. Even Ron Zook, who had publicly stated in previous weeks that he didn't have his team in the Top 25, admitted that "he might" give his Illini a vote this week. For a coach that keeps his players motivated by reminding them of the progress they still need to make, that's quite a compliment.
Player of the Game: RB Rashard Mendenhall, of Illinois, rushed for 160 yards on 19 carries (8.4 YPC) and two touchdowns. He also caught four passes for 33 yards and a touchdown.
Play of the Game: With just over ten minutes remaining and Wisconsin trailing 24-19, DB Vontae Davis picked off Tyler Donovan's deep ball. Illinois scored on the ensuing possession to take a 31-19 lead and never looked back. Wisconsin ran the same play earlier in the game successfully, but Davis made the adjustment. "Can't run the same play over and over again," said Davis. "I'm gonna know what you're doing."
Next up for Illinois: Illinois goes back on the road to face a struggling Iowa team.
Next up for Wisconsin: The Badgers look to regroup on the road against Penn St.