Slip & Slide at Illinois or Not, Badgers Have Tough Buckeye Nut to Crack

Herb Gould

What’s the worst thing about Wisconsin’s upset loss at Illinois?

There isn’t time to make a precise final determination. There’s still nearly half a season to play.

But how about these for starters?

Throwing an interception with 2:32 left rather than handing the ball off, a combination vote of no-confidence in erstwhile Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor and a supposedly stout defense in the event of a punt?

Taylor’s fumble at the Illinois 25 with 7:12 left when Wisconsin seemingly was driving to a 30-14 lead?

A 37-yard missed field goal with 2:39 left in the third quarter? Settling for a field goal on the next possession after a first-and-goal at the 3 yard line?

A Wisconsin defense that had allowed 29 points in five games, giving up 24 points to Illinois, including 10 in the final six minutes?

And the winner (loser) is: A really lousy overall no-show effort, starting with coach Paul Chryst. The Badgers let Illinois hang around with a listless running game, a sloppy defense and a yawning game plan.

It was like a textbook example of how to be upset by a 31-point underdog.

Shame on the Badgers.

If Chryst, 53, who's a terrific 48-13 in 4½ marvelous seasons, coaches at Wisconsin for a long long time—and that's very likely—he'll probably regard this as his darkest day.

The only thing missing was Chryst borrowing Nick Saban’s speech about media praise being ``rat poison.’’ The problem is, the Wisconsin coach might have imbibed some of that himself.

And all credit to Illinois, which looked like a real football team for 60 minutes for the first time in a long time.

A signature win for Lovie Smith? Yessir! Terrific win.

The challenge for the Illini, who are 3-4, will be to see if they can get to six wins and a modest bowl trip. Besides the obvious Nov. 2 home date with Rutgers, the other candidates start with this week’s trip to Purdue.

There also is a Nov. 9 trip to wobbly Michigan State, which got clobbered by Wisconsin, and a Nov. 30 home game against really wobbly Northwestern, which was humiliated by Ohio State.

If Lovie can get to 6-6, he deserves a chance to come back in 2020. Less than that, and we’ll see. . . One win, no matter how uplifting, is not a pattern.

And where does Wisconsin go from here?

This week’s trip to Ohio State looks far more ominous and holds far less promise than it did before the Badgers’ Champaign stumble.

But let me borrow a line from Mr. College Football, my good friend Tony Barnhart, after his beloved Bulldogs were shocked by South Carolina: ``Here’s a fact: Every goal that Georgia set for its season, except winning every game, is still possible.’’

That’s a little less true for the Badgers than it is for the Dawgs, who would have a better strength of schedule if they wind up with one loss.

This also assumes one incredibly flat Champaign performance is an aberration, not an exposure. But if Dawgs fans can keep the faith, Badger fans can, too—at least until Saturday.

If Wisconsin can absolutely destroy a Michigan team that played tough at Penn State, the new great White-Out hope to stop the Ohio State juggernaut, it can’t be all bad.

A 12-1 Wisconsin would have a pretty darn good resume. It might need a little help to reach the College Football Playoff. . . Maybe Michigan taking down Notre Dame this week. A mild surprise or two in the other Power Four conferences—the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

But that should be the least of Wisconsin’s worries at this point.

Because that performance at Illinois not only makes the trip to No. 3 Ohio State look like Mission Impossible.

It also opens up questions about the Badgers’ intentions against their other remaining ranked opponents, No. 20 Iowa in Camp Randall and No. 17 Minnesota in the Twin Cities. And a team that can get shorn by the Illini cannot afford to regard Nebraska and Purdue as slouches, either.

So what does Wisconsin need to do to be competitive at Ohio State this week and give itself a chance to win?

From the nuts-and-bolts standpoint, it needs to get its act together on defense. How does a defense go from four shutouts in six games, from allowing fewer than five points a game, to giving up 10 points in six crucial minutes?

They could start with fixing poor tackling and soft coverages.

Second, it needs to get Taylor going again. it would help, by the way, if the Badgers give him the ball. And if Illinois wouldn’t let him get outside for big gains, what are his prospects against Ohio State? In addition, it needs Coan and his receivers to up their games for a balanced attack.

But most of all, what the Badgers need to do is get their shaken psyches back in order. They need to figure out how to play with intensity and purpose. Those are things they did not do at Illinois.

That will be exceedingly difficult, given the jolt their confidence has been given.

In the Horseshoe against a Buckeye team that might be the best in the land?

Wow. Talk about Mission Impossible.

On the other hand, that’s the beauty of college football. One week, you go to Champaign looking invincible and come out whimpering.

The next week, you go to Columbus with a chance to turn those trends right back around.


Herb Gould