If there wasn't a hangover from last week's loss to Nebraska into the first half of today's game against Illinois (2-4, 0-2), it certainly didn't show for Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1).
Ball had 119 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Locked in a 7-7 game at the half with the Illini, unable to muster much offensively, and barely hanging on at times defensively, something clicked in the locker room at halftime, as Wisconsin would finish the game on a 24-7 run, defeating the Illini 31-14 Saturday afternoon.
"There was a lot of frustration, knowing what we're capable of doing, and not doing," Senior Running Back Montee Ball said. "We were supposed to come into this game and do what we did. It's a great feeling overall right now."
Wisconsin fell behind early in the second quarter. After an interception thrown by Freshman Quarterback Joel Stave, gave Illinois excellent field position at Wisconsin's 28-yard line, Illinois Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase found Josh Ferguson for a 23-yard gain, setting the Illini up for a first and goal.
On the very next play, Scheelhaase scrambled into the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown run. The rest of the day would would be much tougher on Scheelhaase as the Badgers held Illinois' star quarterback to 3.8 yards per carry and just 178 yards through the air.
"Scheelhaase has hurt a lot of teams with his feet, scrambling and making plays with his arm too," Junior Linebacker Chris Borland said. "He’s a threat and we were absolutely concerned about him before the game.”
Illinois was threatening to blow the game open in the second quarter. However with the Illini faced with a third down from Wisconsin's 31-yard line, Senior Cornerback Devin Smith came up with arguably the biggest play of the game.
Smith broke on a pass from Scheelhaase, intercepting it right at the first down markers, halting the drive, and swinging the momentum Wisconsin's way.
“It was a huge momentum swing," Smith said. "They were on our side of the field and in a potential area to score.
Smith's interception changed the momentum in a big way.
"It was a third down play. We called man coverage. We had one-on-one on the backside. I had a good feeling they were going to go back to me. I just anticipated the route at the sticks.”
That play served as a big turning point in the game. On their next drive, Wisconsin Quarterback Joel Stave connected with Junior Running Back James White on a 62-yard screen pass, tying the game at seven apiece.
“As soon as he (Stave) said ‘hut,’ I realized it would be wide open," White said. "I just put the ball away, made one tackler miss, and just ran away."
It was a somber mood in the Wisconsin locker room at halftime, but the second half was a completely different story for the Badgers. After a 46-yard field goal attempt by Kyle French was good, Wisconsin's defense and offense buckled down.
After a tough season thus far, Ball and the run game finally saw the big chunks of yardage come their way. Ball ran it three times in the opening drive of the fourth quarter, picking up 17 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown run to put the Badgers on top 17-7.
Ball finished with 119 yards on 19 carries on the day.
“That goes with what the offensive line was doing," Ball said about the fourth quarter. "They brought the energy and the confidence level into the second half. They felt it was there time to shine.
"I made sure they were going to be held accountable and they could count on me to make the right read and the right decisions.”
Abbrederis' touchdown catch in the fourth quarter put the Badgers on top 24-7.
After a three-and-out by Wisconsin's defense, it was Stave who blew game wide open for the Badgers. Stave connected with Junior Wide Receiver Jared Abbrederis for a 59-yard touchdown pass, extending Wisconsin's lead to 24-7.
“That’s something we've tried to set up through the play-action stuff," Stave said. "It’s a really good feeling when you take a hand off, turn around, and you see him 10 yards past everyone down field.”
Illinois got back within 10 after Scheelhaase found Ryan Lankford wide open in the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown toss off a broken play. The Illini drove 13 plays, and 75 yards for the score.
Wisconsin would quickly respond again with a 19-yard run from Ball on their very next drive. Ball again led the charge, carrying the ball five times for 34 yards, before finding the end zone.
“Up front we’re confident now too," Junior Guard Ryan Groy said about the fourth quarter. "It’s not like we’re leaving the field feeling salty.
"We’re feeling good. We know we can establish the run game. We knew we could do it all year. It’s finally good to show that.”
All of Wisconsin's players and coaches were in agreement following the game, that the fourth quarter was arguably the best football played by the Badgers all season.
Whether or not it serves as a catalyst for the rest of Wisconsin's 2012 campaign, it was a much needed performance.
"If everything goes as planned, if we end up where we want to end up at the end of the season, we'll look back at that fourth quarter," Ball said.
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