CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Wisconsin’s offense was sputtering and pesky Illinois looked primed to end its losing streak when Badgers coach Bret Bielema made his team a bold locker room promise.
“I told them at halftime, this is going to be one of the greatest memories you’ll ever have because you were in such an adverse situation, and then come up and be triumphant,” he said.
That was enough to fire up No. 15 Wisconsin, which scored three unanswered touchdowns during the second half of a 28-17 victory Saturday. Montee Ball led the charge, rushing for 164 yards and scoring two of his three touchdowns after the break.
“We started off pretty slow,” said Ball, who finished with 224 yards on 38 carries. “We did a great job of overcoming adversity, coming in and working our X’s and O’s at halftime and making sure we capitalize on their mistakes.”
Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) forced four turnovers to remain in position to meet Michigan State in the first Big Ten championship game. The Badgers host Penn State next weekend in their final regular-season game.
Donovonn Young rushed for two TDs for Illinois (6-5, 2-5), which has lost five straight. Ron Zook’s job security has come into question during the slide, and Michael Buchanan exchanged words with one fan clamoring for the coach’s ouster as the defensive end left the field.
“As soon as we turned it over the first time on offense, then it seems like they began to think and we went back into the old mood,” Zook said.
Illinois outgained Wisconsin 301-285, but the turnovers — a fumble and three interceptions — combined with special teams mistakes doomed the Illini.
The Badgers scored on drives of 44, 39, 30 and 2 yards. Their first 14 points were set up by an Illinois turnover and a badly botched punt.
Wisconsin trailed 14-0 before Illinois punter Justin Duvernois dropped a snap at his own 2-yard line, setting up a 1-yard run by Ball with 2:55 left in the first half.
Derek Dimke kicked a 41-yard field goal to make it 17-7 at halftime, but it was all Wisconsin from there.
Badgers linebacker Chris Borland hit receiver Darius Millines on the Illini’s first possession of the third quarter, forcing a fumble. Wisconsin needed 7 minutes, 11 seconds and 12 plays to go 30 yards, but Ball finally capped the drive with a 5-yard TD reception.
Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus said the short field hurt but was no excuse for giving up the scores that let the Badgers back in the game.
“It can wear on you a little bit,” said Mercilus, who now has 13½ sacks. “We can’t think internally about ourselves, though, and how tired we are. Adversity is going to happen.”
The Badgers’ go-ahead touchdown came courtesy of an Illini mistake, too.
Illinois’ Terry Hawthorne let a punt sail over his head and toward his end zone. The 74-yarder finally stopped at the 3.
After a fast three-and-out, the Badgers took over at the Illini 44. Four plays later, Wilson faked an inside handoff to Ball and trotted around the left side to make it 21-17 as the third quarter ended.
Illinois opened the final period with another costly turnover on freshman quarterback Reilly O’Toole’s interception. Ball capped the ensuing drive with a 17-yard run for his 30th touchdown of the season, extending his conference record.
Alternating quarterbacks, Illinois got off to a fast start and scored a pair of first-half touchdowns, one with each quarterback.
Nathan Scheelhaase was behind center for the first score, Young’s 12-yard run early in the second quarter.
Defensive end Whitney Mercilus set up O’Toole later in the period.
With the wind finally at their backs, the Badgers offense started to move. Wilson hit Nick Toon for two quick, deep passes and Wisconsin was suddenly at the Illini 36.
When Wilson dropped back again, Mercilus hit him hard, forcing the ball loose. Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown grabbed it and returned it to the Wisconsin 36.
O’Toole and the Illini drove to the Badgers 1, where Young punched the ball in again. Young finished with 43 yards on eight carries before leaving in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle.
The Illini had another second-quarter touchdown called back, a 15-yard pass from O’Toole to Jenkins. Officials flagged tight end Jon Davis for pass interference, a call that Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino criticized in a tense locker room after the game.
“It’s a joke,” he said.
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