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November 19, 2011CHAMPAIGN - Saturday's first half of play in a blustery Memorial Stadium just seemed off.
Russell Wilson wasn't picking Illinois apart. Montee Ball wasn't racking up huge yardage.
There were fumbles, there was bad blocking, there were a couple of penalties and the defense was allowing a sub-par Illini offense to walk all over it. To be down 17-7 at the break was probably a thing of beauty.
Wisconsin played that bad in the first half.
"We just didn't do what we did," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "We just didn't do what we normally do on offense and defense."
For an offense that has more than carried the defense this year - - one could argue UW's defensive breakdowns are the difference between UW's current 9-2 record and a potential 11-0 mark - - it was a day that featured the exact opposite.
The Badger defense, built with four second half turnovers, helped lead UW to victory.
Its play allowed the Badger offense to start drives deep in Illinois territory. It's opportunistic ability, it's knack for making the big play, it's right-place, right-time mentality and it's senior leadership served as the backbone for a 21-0 second half beat down.
Wisconsin's defense, as bend-but-not-break as it is, took the will right out of Illinois' defense, arguably it's top asset.
"It's very frustrating," Illinois stud defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. "We came in and played the first half great. We let off the gas pedal a little bit and they capitalized on our mistakes.
"We were pumped up coming into this game and really wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to knock off a ranked opponent."
Not Saturday. Not with the way the Badger defense played.
Chris Borland, who finished with 16 tackles, forced an Illinois fumble during the Illini's first possession of the second half. After the Montee Ball touchdown 12 plays later, UW's defense was right back at it.
Reilly O'Toole, a freshman quarterback, threw deep to what looked to be a wide-open A.J. Jenkins. Though the ball seemed to hang in the air for a long period of time, it didn't seem to be vastly under thrown. It was apparent UW's senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus made the play.
There's a difference between a turnover and a takeaway.
"He's playing as good as any corner in this league," Bielema said. "He's playing as the best cornerback I've had since I've been at Wisconsin and we've had some good ones.
"He has so much confidence in his abilities."
With UW up 21-17, fellow senior Aaron Henry collected one of the more unique interceptions of his career, after it bounced off Fenelus and rattled around through about four different players before coming to Henry.
"I put my hands out," Henry, who also made a ridiculous open-field tackle, said. "And the ball fell right in there."
Ball scored his third and final touchdown of the game shortly after the sudden change. Then, with Illinois driving and with plenty of time left, junior strong safety Shelton Johnson jumped a route for a game-clinching interception.
The first half wasn't pretty for the Wisconsin defense, but the way they ended it might have paved a rosy path to Pasadena.
Groy frustrated with play:
Sophomore Ryan Groy had embraced the challenge of replacing junior center Peter Konz at center throughout the week. Unfortunately Saturday's game didn't go according to planned.
Not only did Groy have an obvious false start penalty during the third quarter, he also experienced a miscommunication with Russell Wilson that led to an errant snap during a shotgun formation set.
The ball, snapped high and hard, sailed over Wilson's head and turned into a 19-yard loss.
"I didn't hear something I should have," Groy said. "It was my fault."
When UW's offense trotted out for its ensuing possession, offensive line coach Bob Bostad moved Groy to left guard in favor of Travis Frederick at center. Though he understood the move, Groy seemed frustrated with it following the game.
"I thought I played solid in the first half," Groy said. "I played better at center than I did guard, I know that. I was a little upset. I thought it was a little shot at me. It wasn't meant to be, but it was something I shouldn't have done.
"It was something I was upset with (myself) about."
The only noticeable injury during Saturday's game, at least from a Wisconsin standpoint, came when junior left tackle Ricky Wagner got rolled up from behind. Wagner missed a couple of series while being examined in the locker room, but eventually wound up back on the field.
Bielema didn't seem too concerned with Wagner's status after the game.
"He obviously tweaked his knee," Bielema said. "But he sucked it up and got back out there. I don't really know the full diagnosis on him other than the fact he came back and played."
Play of the game?
Considering the sequence of events - - a terribly high snap from Groy leading to a fourth down - - it was important for senior punter Brad Nortman to get off one of his better punts of the season. Not many thought it would be of the 75-yard variety, though.
"I'm always trying to do that," Nortman said. "It was certainly nice to punt with the wind at your back. Going into it was pretty challenging."
The punt itself traveled in the air for about 46 yards. It then took a wicked Wisconsin hop and wound up stopping inside the Illinois 10-yard line. It completely flipped field position for an Illinois offense that was suddenly struggling to move the ball with any consistency.
"I feel like it was a pretty good momentum swing," Nortman, who also pinned Illinois at its own five-yard line another time Saturday afternoon, said. "I felt like momentum was swinging toward us anyway so just being able to help out our team and continue the momentum going our way was really important."
-With Saturday's win, Wisconsin has now recorded at least nine wins in each of the past three seasons. It also marks the seventh time in eight years that Wisconsin has reached that plateau.
-UW is now 18-2 in regular-season games played after Nov. 1 under Bielema and 30-7 since the start of the 2009 season.
-The all-time series between Wisconsin and Illinois is now tied at 35 wins apiece. There have been seven ties throughout the history of the matchup.
-Either Russell Wilson or Montee Ball have scored or have contributed to 57 of Wisconsin's 68 touchdowns on the season.
-Ball has now scored at least one touchdown in 17-straight games for Wisconsin. He's scored at least two in every game for UW this season. Ball's three touchdowns also makes him just the fifth player in FBS history to score at least 30 touchdowns in a season. He is just the second player from a BCS conference to do so, joining Barry Sanders.
-Ball has averaged 204.3 yards per game in November. Last year, in four November games, he averaged 161.3 yards per game.
-Wilson has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 35-straight games, just one shy of the NCAA record of 36-straight held by Texas Tech's Graham Harrell.
-Borland forced two fumbles Saturday, giving him four on the season and nine in his career. Borland also had a career-high 16 tackles, giving him six double-digit tackle performances this season.
-With 13 tackles, junior linebacker Mike Taylor has logged six games with double-digit tackles.
-Nortman's 74-yard punt in the third quarter was the longest of the season and second-longest of his career (76 yards against Austin Peay, Sept. 25, 2010). Nortman averaged 48.2 yards on his four punts and placed three inside the 20-yard line.
Bielema on whether he thought about kicking a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down twice in UW's first offensive series of the second half:
"Not in my mind."