Illinois football’s defense can’t hold up against Wisconsin’s Bart Houston

By Michal Dwojak, Staff writer

Illini fans all over Memorial Stadium were excited — Illinois was leading Wisconsin, a team that had won nine of the last 10 matchups between the two teams going into Saturday. The game had been a tightly contested battle and the Illini made their strike. Now the defense just needed to slow down Wisconsin’s offense on its next drive.

Badgers wide receiver Alex Erickson took a handoff on the next play and ran to his left around blockers and scampered along the sideline for 56 yards. Wisconsin scored a touchdown after seven plays to take the lead back.

Erickson’s long run was one of many plays where Wisconsin forced the Illini to make tackles in the open field. And on many of those open-field tackles, the first Illini defender missed.

“There were a lot of plays where they beat us one-on-one,” linebacker Mason Monheim said. “It’s a game of inches and you see where there were plays for us to make and we made some of them. We just have to go on to the next play.”

The Illinois defense looked dominant at the start of the game, especially along the defensive line. Wisconsin failed to gain momentum until starting quarterback Joel Stave left the game with a head injury in the first half. Bart Houston came into the game and created issues for the Illini defense after he found his rhythm.

Houston used a three-step drop-back and the defensive linemen struggled to adapt. The quarterback rolled in the pocket and created plays with his legs. He finished with 232 passing yards, two touchdowns and threw two interceptions.

Wisconsin also possessed the ball for 40:09. Although it might’ve seemed that the Illini defensive players were tired, they didn’t want to use that as an excuse.

“I didn’t feel tired and I don’t think we were (tired),” Monheim said. “We have two weeks off. Feeling tired is out of the equation. You just have to go out there, execute and make the play.”

Filling in the holes

Head coach Bill Cubit has been forced to think of different ways to make up for injured offensive players.

He’s involved Caleb Day in the offense more and Saturday was the first time Day received a few offensive opportunities. He caught two tosses from quarterback Wes Lunt and ran them around a few blocks, each for nine yards.

Cubit also tried to involve other players, like receiver Zach Grant, but Wisconsin’s defensive scheme limited the success of using different players.

“The problem is that he doesn’t play much on offense, so when they go man-to-man, there’s a lot of technique,” Cubit said about Day. “We put him in there a couple of times when they ran man-to-man and he’s just not used to it.”

Offense adds another injury

The injuries continue to pile up for the Illinois offense.

Tight end Tyler White left Saturday’s game with a knee injury. Cubit said Monday that White would have an MRI later on Monday but has been ruled out against Penn State. White missed games earlier in the season with a concussion he suffered against Western Illinois.

The loss will further damage an offense that is reliant on tight ends.

“I just feel bad for him,” said Lunt, who’s White’s roommate.. “He worked so hard to come back after he tore his ACL last December and I just feel for him. He’s worked so hard and he’s a key guy in our offense.”

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