QB Bart Houston, in for concussed starter Joel Stave, led the Wisconsin Badgers to a 24-13 win over Illinois in Big Ten action in Champagne Saturday afternoon.
The Badgers improve to a 6-2 mark (3-1 in Big Ten) and hold on to hope in the West Division race currently led by undefeated Iowa. The Fighting Illini are now 4-3 (1-2).
Houston orchestrated three touchdown drives, completing 22 of 33 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns. He showed a great deal of poise in the pocket, relying on tight end Alex Erickson, who led the team in both rushing and receiving providing the key to victory.
Erickson rushed four times for 81 yards and caught 10 passes for 96 more and the dagger touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The Wisconsin Badgers had to perform more than a little shorthanded on Saturday. Losing Stave, who had recorded back-to-back 300+ yard passing games, was piled on top of a dearth of backfield performers. The once and hopefully future vaunted running game was without the services of Corey Clement and Taiwan Deal.
Badger head coach Paul Chryst heaped praise on Erickson after the game. “That’s just the type of player he is,” Chryst said. “He made some big runs for us and some tough catches. It’s what he does.”
Houston made his first completion good for a first down. A couple of plays later, he found Robert Wheelwright just inbounds at the two. Wheelwright did his best Gumby impression, stretching to touch a pylon for the score.
The bang-bang play gave the Badgers a 7-3 lead under a minute into the second quarter of play. After getting the ball back, Houston took to the air and drove down to the Illini two yard line but they had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Rafael Gaglianone. The lead was 10-3 with 7:01 left ’til halftime.
An impressive drive by the Illini fell short at the seven yard line and a field goal cut the lead to 10-6 with 4:23 left before intermission.
It didn’t take long for Houston to get into a comfort zone with tight end Alex Erickson. He became a go-to guy on the ensuing drive, finding him in the flat to move the chains. Alec Ingold became the big powerful change of pace back. The converted linebacker provided a first down as did tight end Troy Fumagalli.
But after Wheelwright dropped a sure touchdown pass from Houston. the next pass attempt got picked off and the half ended with Bucky in front, 10-6.
After exchanging punts, the Illini used some Wes Lunt passes to stoke their drive and then Ke’Shawn Vaughn broke into the secondary and gamboled for the 36-yard score and a 13-10 lead with just over seven minutes left in the third stanza.
Houston to Erickson clicked several times fueling the riposte by the Badgers, earning a first and goal from the five. Ingold powered the ball to the two and then rolled in for the touch on consecutive carries. That made it 17-13 at the 4:05 mark.
Fortunes turned quickly in the Badgers’ favor after forcing the Illini to punt. Erickson rushing and receiving and Houston hoisted the team on Erickson’s shoulder pads and never looked back. Houston found his tight end cutting across the middle all alone for a 24-13 lead with 9:42 to go.
Then Captain and safety Michael Caputo intercepted Lunt for the first time in 191 attempts to give the ball right back to Bucky. The announcers were able to call this game with blindfolds on, noting that it would likely be correct if they said Erickson was involved in the action.
Wisconsin was content to either run the ball or go with short passes to chew some clock. But Houston tried to hit Tanner McAvoy in the end zone and was picked off with 4:36 left.
It was still a pretty tall order for the Illini, trailing by eleven. But they couldn’t hold serve and the Badgers tried to again run out the clock, Illinois made some progress before Chris Orr scooped up a fumble and Wisconsin was able to finally get to goose eggs.
The Badgers return to the friendly confines of Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, October 31, to take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m., CDT. The Halloween morning contest will be carried on the Big Ten Network (BTN).