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November 19, 2011
Ball carries load, UW wins
CHAMPAIGN - With the wind whipping around the innards of Memorial Stadium and with rain dropping consistently inconsistently, Wisconsin was prepared for a grinder against a slumping Illinois squad hoping to salvage its season on senior day.
Good thing it has Montee Ball on its side.
The junior tailback rushed for 224 yards on 38 carries, finished two drives with running scores and caught one five-yard touchdown pass as the Badgers wore down the Illini en route to a 28-17 win.
"He enjoys every minute of it," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "I've never had a running back compete in practice as hard as he does. That's why the games slow down for him and are as easy as they are.
"He just absolutely works his tail off every day during the course of the week."
Wisconsin, and quarterback Russell Wilson, only threw the ball 13 times throughout the course of Saturday's game. It was nearly impossible to move the ball through the air with any semblance of consistency with such a stiff breeze so UW relied on the running game.
By game's end, 195 of the Badgers 285 total yards - - its lowest output since 2009 - - came on the ground. Ball rushed for more yards by himself than his team did collectively.
"He's been able to get the job done," UW senior right guard Kevin Zeitler said. "He's been reliable and he's been productive.
"Why not rely on him?"
It took a while for the UW running machine to reach full speed simply because Illinois was riding a rather high wave of emotion. The Illini and head coach Ron Zook have felt the brunt of constant criticism throughout its now five-game losing streak.
Having started the season off 6-0, Illinois has now lost five consecutive games.
"You knew you were kind of walking into a little bit of a storm," Bielema, whose offense turned the ball over once and trailed the Illini 17-7 at the break, said. "We kind of told our guys to brace for an initial surge.
"Obviously we didn't play well during the first half and took it into halftime."
That's where it seemed as though the Badger defense, the same one that allowed 224 yards of total offense to Illinois during the first 30 minutes of play, postured itself opportunistic.
It helped Wilson and an offense mostly reliant on Ball regroup and find it's offensive swagger.
It was the defense's turn to effectively pick up the offense that has carried this UW team through thick and thin this season.
"That's our goal every week," senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus, who jumped a Reilly O'Toole pass intended for A.J. Jenkins for a critical interception midway through the third quarter, said. "We want to create takeaways and give our offense the ball because we know they can score and put up points.
"That was our goal."
Illinois had five possessions in the second half of play.
Four of those drives ended with a turnover and the fifth was punted away. The same defense that let the Illinois running backs run wild on it during the opening half allowed just 77 yards in the second half.
"Against a tough team like Wisconsin you can't turn the ball over," Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "We took advantage of their turnovers in the first half and they took advantage of ours.
"But those things can't happen."
Chris Borland, who led all players with 16 tackles, forced an Illinois fumble during the Illini's first series of the second half. Fellow linebacker Mike Taylor picked up the loose ball at the 30-yard line.
It took the sputtering offense 12 plays to move 30 yards, but Ball eventually found the endzone on a wide-open wheel route. That seemed to open the floodgates for the offense.
"Our offense capitalized on the second half," Bielema said. "They just kept a foot on the floorboard from there on out."
Fenelus, Aaron Henry and Shelton Johnson each collected interceptions during the second half.
"As soon as we turned it over the first time on offense," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. "Then it seems like they began to think and we went back into the old mood."
Nothing came easy, though, particularly for an offensive line that entered the game with a new center (Ryan Groy), played portions of the game with a new left tackle (Rob Havenstein) and finished it with a flip-flop of its center and left guard.
Wisconsin fell approximately 200 yards short of its total offense average and Wilson finished with just 90 yards passing and two sacks. In a game that was anything but ordinary, it was yet another ordinary result for a Badger squad that improved its record to 9-2 on the season.
And it's a team that will play for the inaugural 'Leaders' division title next Saturday against Penn State. Wisconsin did what it had to do.
"What we've had to go through in the world of college football is very unique only to us," Bielema said. "To have that disappointment and to rise up from that is very special to us."