Wisconsin could have easily subtitled its 24-7 win over Illinois “The Anthony Davis Show.”
The senior tailback was practically Wisconsin’s entire offense, amassing 213 rushing yards on 27 carries, including three touchdown runs, and 37 aerial yards on three pass receptions against the Illini (2-3 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) Saturday in Madison. Davis returned from a broken orbital bone he sustained against Central Florida Sept. 4 to resuscitate the running aspect of Wisconsin’s wholly anemic offense.
“He’s a special player,” Illinois head coach Ron Turner said. “He brings the dimension of a home run every play. … [Wisconsin was] going to do what they do, run the ball and do all that, but he brings a different dimension. He brings a big-play threat.”
Davis gave Wisconsin (5-0, 2-0) all three of its home runs Saturday, giving the Badgers 18 of their 24 points, while senior place kicker Mike Allen added the other six on a field goal and three extra points. Davis picked up Wisconsin’s first touchdown on a 16-yard scamper with 13:44 left in the second quarter, finishing off a nine-play, 73-yard drive in which he contributed 50 yards on six touches.
With Davis making his first appearance in three weeks, both he and head coach Barry Alvarez made sure he managed an appropriate workload and stayed fresh during the game.
“My advice to him was let’s not try to get 300 yards on the first carry, let’s not try to make up for those last three games on the first carry,” Alvarez said. “Let’s settle down, take what you can get, just work into the game. It will happen.”
It happened again and again. Allen kicked a 48-yard field goal—tying his second-longest kick of his career—to put the Badgers up 10-0 before Davis stormed down the field and into the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown with 4:47 remaining in the third quarter.
“I started to feel things better and see things better as the game went on,” Davis said.
Davis scored his final touchdown on a 31-yard sprint with just over three minutes left in the game, putting the Badgers up 24-7 after Allen knocked in the extra point.
In short, Davis was the offense and without him, the offense looked much the same as it had recently: lackluster. Sophomore quarterback John Stocco only connected on 9 of 20 passes for 99 yards, averaging about five yards per attempt. He was also sacked in the fourth quarter and fumbled, which Illini freshman defensive lineman Joe Mele recovered, giving the Illini control at the Wisconsin 34-yard-line.
“I thought John made very good decisions, I thought he made a couple of very good throws, he stepped up and checked things down when he was flushed out of the pocket, I thought he played better (than he had against Penn State),” Alvarez said.
“Obviously, I can get a lot better, we as an offense can get a lot better and the whole team really, we know we can get a lot better,” Stocco said.
Wisconsin’s defense, as in past weeks, played an extremely tight game, giving up only one touchdown, 42 rushing yards and 164 passing yards. Illinois, heading into Saturday’s contest, had averaged 32.2 points, 438.2 total yards and 213.8 rushing yards per game. The Badgers held sophomore tailback E. B. Halsey to only 27 yards rushing on eight carries; he averaged 87.5 prior to Saturday. The Illini, heading into this game, were second in the conference in rushing offense and third in both pass and total offense.
“We knew what Coach B (defensive coordinator Bret Bielema) and Coach Alvarez said. They said that this was the best team that we’ve faced so far,” junior will linebacker Dontez Sanders said. “We just went out there, played hard, played good and won.”
Wisconsin’s suffocating defense made it difficult for Illinois to get into a rhythm, forcing Illinois to use three different quarterbacks, although none left the game due to injury.
Sixth-year senior Jon Beutjer was pulled in the third quarter after completing just 12 of 27 passes for 85 yards. Backup freshman Brad Bower was thrown into the game but he contributed very little, adding only a 12-yard completion on four attempts. Sophomore Chris Pazan was substituted in midway through the fourth quarter and went 7 of 10 for 67 yards and Illinois’ only touchdown, coming on a three-yard pass to sophomore tight end Melvin Bryant with 7:29 left in the game.
”We’re trying to move the ball and score points,” Turner said on the decision to pull Beutjer. “We wanted to see if making a change would help us do that. That’s it.”
Wisconsin’s defense, though, made it difficult to score points, as the Badgers, for the fifth game straight, held their opponents to fewer than 10 points. Sophomore mike linebacker Reggie Cribbs and Sanders contributed to the effort by racking up 10 and 13 tackles, respectively, career highs for both players.