Illinois vs. Wisconsin game notes
October 21, 2019
It was the win no one in America saw coming.
Illinois, a 30-point underdog, stunned No. 6-ranked and undefeated Wisconsin, 24-23, for a homecoming victory. Offensively, Illinois stepped up when its back was against the wall, contrary to previous performances this season such as the Nebraska game. On defense, the Illini bent but never broke as they found a way to limit Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor — the most feared running back in college football. The Illini lost several players to injury on Saturday, both for the entire game and part-way through it, forcing less experienced players to step up, which they did.
It was a rough start for the Illini, as the Badgers jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead and maintained it as halftime approached. But the spark which shifted things for the unit came from an unlikely source.
With slot-receiver Trevon Sidney out due to injury, walk-on Donny Navarro got the reps inside and took a slant pass from quarterback Brandon Peters 48 yards to the house after breaking a tackle to cut into the lead.
“Isn’t that saying an awful lot?” said head coach Lovie Smith. “Donny, a walk-on player … Donny has just done his job quietly behind the scenes. But to make a play like that against a defense like that, there’s a lot of guys that are gonna remember this game, but (I) couldn’t be more pumped up for him.”
The Badgers went down and tacked on a field goal before the end of the half. When Taylor found the endzone to make the score 20-7 in the third quarter, it looked as though the Illini were destined for another rough loss.
But Illinois refused to go away. Spurred by a reportedly intense halftime speech from running back Reggie Corbin, the Illini got back in it as the senior zoomed past the stout Badgers defense for a 48-yard touchdown at the end of the quarter.
Illinois found life through receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe when down 23-14. Having already had one long touchdown taken away due to a questionable illegal man downfield who was not involved with the action, Imatorbhebhe stayed patient and readjusted his rout after the Badgers took the initial play away. He went up and grabbed a 29-yard touchdown after Peters bought him time to get free.
After getting the ball back and needing just a field goal to win, Peters made a critical third-down completion to tight end Daniel Barker to keep the drive alive, eventually putting kicker James McCourt in position to kick a game-winning field goal.
The junior did just that, knocking in a 39-yard field goal as time expired, as his teammates mobbed him along with the thousands of other fans in attendance.
“Honestly, I think going through my head was some oxygen because I was passed out at the bottom of the pile, supposedly,” McCourt said. “I got lifted up and I thought I woke up from a dream or something. It was unbelievable.”
Although the offense came through when it mattered most, the unit was still lethargic for long stretches of Saturday’s game, but nevertheless found a way to get the ball into its best players’ hands when it mattered most.
While Jonathan Taylor’s final stat line still ended quite impressive, the Badgers running back ran for just 4.7 yards per carry, far below his season average.
Stopping Taylor is certainly something to hang a hat on, but there were two specific plays that ultimately made the true difference for Illinois.
Up 20-14 in the fourth quarter, the Badgers looked to have the play to break the Illini’s will as quarterback Jack Coan found receiver Kendric Pryor over the heads of the Illini defensive backs and the Wisconsin pass-catcher looked as though he would score. But freshman backup Devon Witherspoon had other plans as he chased Pryor down from behind at the three-yard line to save a touchdown. Illinois held Wisconsin to a field goal three plays later, still holding onto a potential win.
“Devon was supposed to not let the receiver go inside, (and) that didn’t happen; that happens with young people from time to time,” Smith said. “But to hustle to get him down, to give us one more shot that drive, not letting them score a touchdown was big.”
Witherspoon was in the game due to a slew of injuries sustained on defense, but the freshman found a way to make an impact, even if it resulted from him making an initial mistake.
The Illini needed a stop to get the ball back down 23-21 and got one through an interception from safety Tony Adams with three minutes remaining.
“When I saw the formation I knew that they (were) gonna try me again,” Adams said. “They’d been doing that all day and completing it, so I made sure I hit one and then I saw (number) two come out (of) the backfield so I tried to hide behind two, hit him and then backpedal and I just caught it.”
The interception gave Illinois a shorter field to work with, a key favor for an offense that’s struggled to consistently move the ball recently, and helped prepare McCourt for the game-winning field goal.
The unit forced three turnovers to go along with keeping the Badgers offense in check, which was certainly the catalyst for the upset victory.
The game-saving play from Witherspoon, the touchdown catch from Navarro and even the solid play from freshman receiver Casey Washington all served as proof Smith’s staff has accumulated more talent on the 2019 roster than in previous years.
Unlikely contributors were forced into action due to injuries. Trevon Sidney, Isaiah Williams and Ray’Von Bonner didn’t dress for Saturday’s game, while Oluwole Betiku, Ricky Smalling and Dele Harding left the game with knocks.
While Smalling and Harding looked to be fine in the near future, Betiku was seen on the sideline in a walking boot during the second half.
The win served as a defining moment of Smith’s tenure at Illinois thus far, and some fans will be hoping the program builds on performances like Saturday’s rather than resting contently.