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Jim Polzin: Why the Badgers' win over Illinois was the first step in putting a poor start behind them
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Jim Polzin: Why the Badgers' win over Illinois was the first step in putting a poor start behind them

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Contrary to popular belief, the season wasn’t officially over after the University of Wisconsin football team got off to a 1-3 start.

The Badgers showed up Saturday and played the next game on their schedule. A 24-0 victory over Illinois at Memorial Stadium won’t erase the stain of losses to Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan, but at least it was a step forward after a whole lot of going in the opposite direction to start the season.

The University of Wisconsin tight end speaks to the media Saturday after the Badgers defeated the Illinois Fighting Illini 24-0 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Il.

“We knew we had an opportunity to play this week and all that mattered was how do we have a great week of prep?” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “That is what matters most. We’ve got a group that likes playing football, so when you’ve got one on the horizon, I want them to enjoy and appreciate all that went into today and then tomorrow we get to go forward and get ready for another game, another opportunity.”

Chryst said earlier in the week it was fun to be around this team. He later explained that he appreciated his players’ approach, even after losing 41-13 and 38-17 in consecutive weeks. He could tell they still cared for each other.

It’s easy for those of us on the outside to focus on the big picture, how this awful start to the season amplified a mediocre stretch that began midway through the 2019 season.

Chryst and the Badgers could dwell on that, too, or they could move on and try to fix what’s broken. They’ve chosen Option B.

“I thought we came out and we played really well as a whole group,” UW senior right tackle Tyler Beach said. “We were playing off each other, (and) for each other, especially. That was the message — positivity — and just playing as a family rather than focusing on, ‘The offense does this, the defense does that.’ I think the focus this week was just kind of playing as a team.”

UW finished with 391 yards rushing and, after watching this offense struggle to generate much of a ground game in previous weeks, I wasn’t sure that type of production was possible this season against a Big Ten opponent, even a bottom-feeder such as Illinois.

That the Badgers rushed for nearly 400 yards and only finished with 24 points was more proof that this offense needs to grind for everything it gets.

But let’s not ignore the good in time-consuming drives: 18 plays, 67 yards, 9 minutes, 44 seconds; 14-79-6:50; 13-75-6:22. There were glimpses of UW smashmouth football in there that have been missing.

“The outcomes we’ve had in the last couple of weeks, obviously they’re not the way we wanted them to be,” said UW tailback Chez Mellusi, who led the Badgers with 145 yards rushing and formed a powerful 1-2 punch with freshman Braelon Allen (131 yards). “But I think this was very important to come out here and do what we did today and kind of come back to our identity and keep building off it.”

The best thing the offense did, besides giving the defense long stretches to rest on a hot day, was finally take some pressure off a group that has been doing everything it can to keep UW competitive this season.

The Badgers had the lead a total of 2 minutes, 23 seconds of a possible 180 minutes in their three losses. UW’s first drive Saturday ended with a field goal and Mellusi scored on a touchdown run to finish a long workmanlike drive in the second quarter. Ten points in a half is hardly explosive, but it finally gave the defense a chance to play with a cushion.

“They’ve been lights out all season,” UW senior tight end Jake Ferguson said. “It finally feels good to kind of give them a little breather and just kind of get that weight off their shoulders, where, ‘OK, we’ve got a little bit of a lead, we can kind of play our ball, play our game.’”

In fact, the defense played its game from start to finish. Nose tackle Keaanu Benton was in Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters’ face on the opening snap and outside linebacker Nick Herbig applied pressure two plays later.

The Badgers only had one sack. But they rarely let Peters or backup Artur Sitkowski get comfortable in the pocket, and the two combined for 12 consecutive incomplete passes at one point. That was a major problem for the Fighting Illini because they, like most teams, had no chance of moving the ball on the ground against UW.

When all was said and done, the Badgers had pitched a shutout while allowing 93 total yards.

“The motivational speeches throughout the week, the highlight videos, the stuff like that, it was short and sweet because talk is cheap,” UW safety Collin Wilder said. “We’re tired of talking at this point. We need to go out and show it, and we did a great job of showing it today.”

What the Badgers did after finally arriving at a softer spot in what had been a relentless schedule to open the season was make some progress. The sky was falling around them and they ignored the commotion, choosing instead to rally around each other.

The logical next step? Do it again next week.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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