The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Wisconsin Badgers stun Illini in Homecoming game

Defensive+tackle+JerZhan+Newton+pushes+again+Wisconsin+offensive+lineman+Michael+Furtney+at+the+endzone+during+the+third+quarter+on+Saturday.
James Hoeck
Defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton pushes again Wisconsin offensive lineman Michael Furtney at the endzone during the third quarter on Saturday.

A gorgeous day in Champaign did not bring gorgeous results to the Illini (3-5, 1-3) during a classic and ugly Big Ten West football game. A week of festivities for students and alumni came to a close with Memorial Stadium hosting the Wisconsin Badgers (5-2, 3-1) for the annual Homecoming game as the Illini fell 25-21. 

For the second consecutive week, the Illini deferred to the second half as freshman kicker David Olano booted the ball out of bounds, giving the Badgers great field position. They weren’t able to move the ball much with elementary playcalling due to their quarterback situation.

Freshman Braedyn Locke received his first collegiate start because of Tanner Mordecai’s broken hand. As a result, the Badgers showcased primarily runs and short passes on their early drives. The conservative plays proved wise, as the first time Locke felt pressure, he made a mistake. 

Holding the ball loosely is never a good idea for a ball carrier, especially not near a midseason All-American. As Locke escaped the pocket, junior lineman Jer’Zhan Newton stripped him for a turnover. The offense used the momentum to cross the goal line, something they have struggled to do all season. 

Sophomore quarterback Luke Altmyer began the drive with a back-shoulder throw to junior receiver Pat Bryant for 27 yards. After a few runs for freshman running back Kaden Feagin, the new starter in the backfield, the Illini got inside the red zone and turned to Altmyer again. Sophomore tight end Tanner Arkin caught his first pass as an Illini for a touchdown to give them a 7-0 lead. 

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Another three-and-out by the Illini defense put the ball right back in the hands of the offense. Altmyer and company managed a couple of first downs, but a fourth down at the Badger 33 brought the first big decision of the game. On fourth and one, the Illini continued their streak of short down shotgun play calls, and Feagin could not pick up the first.

Both defenses stepped up their game from the end of the first quarter and into the second before the Badgers went on their best drive of the first half. It took five drives for the Badgers to get into scoring position, but two first downs and a big penalty set them up inside the red zone. The drive stalled from there and the field goal unit came out for a chip shot. Fortunately for Illinois, the snap was muffed, and the holder was crushed in the backfield by a swarm of navy and orange uniforms.

Again, the offense rewarded the defense for their stop, driving 82 yards downfield for a touchdown. Practically everyone contributed as the drive lasted eight minutes, capped off by an Altmyer throw to junior tight end Tip Reiman for six. The Illini dominance did not stretch into halftime, however, as the defense faltered just before the break.

A third-down 32-yard completion fueled a quick touchdown drive for the Badgers, making it a one-score game at halftime. The Illini were unfazed, scoring first in the third quarter with a 10-play drive. While Altmyer continued to make plays with his legs on his way to a 103-yard day on the ground, it was Feagin who scored for the second week in a row.

Up 21-7, the defense was tasked with protecting their largest second-half lead of the season. A couple of early carries from the Badger star running back Braelon Allen got them downfield quickly, but it was “bend, don’t break” for the Illini. A field goal made it 21-10 early in the fourth quarter.  

The Illini offense took the ball into Badger territory on the ensuing drive but punted it back to Wisconsin quickly, where the tide began to turn. Newton got into the backfield untouched on second down and laid the boom on Locke. Despite Locke possessing the ball and Newton initiating contact with his arms, the junior was ejected for targeting. Astonished head coach Bret Bielema could not change the mind of the officials as deafening boos rained down from the crowd.  

“I think Johnny led with his hands. It turned the game, its maddening,” said Bielema. “Those kids deserve an answer. Those fans deserve an answer.”

The Badgers marched 82 yards downfield for a touchdown and a two-point conversion. Just like that, it was a three-point game, and the Illini were stripped of their best player and momentum. Only one first down for the Illini offense didn’t help matters, and the Badgers got the ball at their own 17 with just over three minutes to go.

Without junior lineman Keith Randolph Jr. due to injury, the Illini were without two starters for the crucial final drive and their absence was evident. The Badgers converted multiple third downs and got to the Illini five on a big passing play from Locke. In the area where the Illini relied on the big men the most, it was the Badgers who utilized theirs the best. A trick play ended with an offensive lineman securing the game-winning touchdown grab for Wisconsin, silencing the crowd and completing the comeback.

“Johnny’s a good player but we just can’t implode when he’s not out there,” Bielema said about the final two drives. “We gotta execute better, especially in the crunch.”

 

@benfader7

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About the Contributors
Ben Fader, Sports Editor
Hello, I’m Ben! I’m a junior at Illinois and assistant sports editor at The Daily Illini. I’m majoring in journalism and minoring in communications and recreation, sport and tourism. This is my third year with The Daily Illini, and I can’t wait to produce some amazing work. Feel free to contact me at my email below with questions or concerns, or if you just want to talk sports!
James Hoeck, Photo Editor
Heyo! I am James Hoeck, a third-year undergraduate student in photography with a minor in media. I have been a part of Illini Media for two years, starting back in fall 2021. I hold the position of Photo Editor here at The Daily Illini. I also work as Photo Editor for Illini Media’s Illio Yearbook. There is a good chance you will see me out and about on campus taking photos for my personal work or for The DI and/or Illio! If you want to check out more of my work, visit my socials linked below.
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