Late in the second quarter of the University of Wisconsin’s 49-20 victory over Illinois on Saturday, Olive Sagapolu dropped into coverage, shuffled in line with the eyes of quarterback MJ Rivers, batted his pass high into the air and cradled an unlikely interception that most 342-pound nose tackles would only dream of securing.
The brief but intense first-half snowstorm at Camp Randall Stadium had already subsided, but the Fighting Illini hadn’t yet escaped the flurry of turnovers that buried their chances of keeping pace with the heavily-favored Badgers.
Sagapolu’s interception marked the fourth of five first-half takeaways for 23rd-ranked UW (5-2, 3-1), a refreshing sight for a Badgers defense that’s struggled for much of the season.
“We have to do a good job of just trying to spark anything we can,” UW inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. "When you can get those turnovers early, I think it really helps the momentum of the team. ... Any time we can do that, we need to do it."
UW had only forced nine turnovers in six games entering Saturday, and the Badgers hadn’t taken the ball away five times since a win at Minnesota in 2015. The last time they forced five in one half came back in 2010, a 70-23 victory over Northwestern.
The Badgers improved to 5-2 overall, 3-1 in the Big Ten with a 49-20 Homecoming win over Illinois on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
Edwards started the outbreak. After UW began the game with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, Edwards picked off Illinois quarterback AJ Bush and returned the ball 28 yards to the Fighting Illini’s 25-yard line. Aron Cruickshank scored on a 23-yard jet sweep two plays later to give the Badgers a 14-0 lead less than 8 minutes into the game.
The other four takeaways all came in the second quarter over a span of five Illinois possessions. True freshman inside linebacker Jack Sanborn forced a fumble, which Chris Orr recovered on the UW 23-yard line, and safety Evan Bondoc intercepted a pass on the Illinois 44 the next time out.
Sagapolu’s big play came with 3:03 left in the first half, but there was still time for safety Eric Burrell to knock the ball free from running back Reggie Corbin just before he hit the turf on Illinois’ next drive, which cornerback Rachad Wildgoose recovered.
UW’s offense didn’t capitalize at first. The drive after Sanborn’s forced fumble stalled, and Bondoc’s interception led to a missed 27-yard field goal from Rafael Gaglianone.
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The play following the miss, Corbin took a handoff to the right side before cutting it back all the way to the left and running 80 yards for a touchdown. Despite the early lead and three takeaways to that point, Illinois (3-4, 1-3) had cut the Badgers’ advantage to 14-7 with 6:19 remaining in the first half.
“Like we thought coming in, they’re certainly an offense that’s capable of big plays,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. "And yet, I thought one of the strengths of this team is responding, and you’ve got to turn the page. Learn what you can from previous plays, but you go forward, and I thought our guys did a good job of that throughout the day."
UW quarterback Alex Hornibrook hit tight end Jake Ferguson for a 27-yard touchdown one play after Sagapolu’s interception, and an 11-yard toss from Hornibrook to tight end Kyle Penniston following Burrell’s forced fumble put the Badgers up 28-7 less than five minutes after Corbin’s long run.
Hornibrook completed 13-of-22 passes for 188 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. His first pick allowed the Illini to add a 52-yard field goal just before halftime, and his second led to Ra’Von Bonner’s 18-yard touchdown run with 10:57 left in the third quarter, which cut the Badgers’ lead to 28-17.
Illinois couldn’t close the gap any further. The Badgers ballooned their advantage to 42-17 after running back Taiwan Deal scored from 39 yards out and fullback Alec Ingold caught a 19-yard touchdown pass, his second score of the day.
Deal added his second touchdown on a 6-yard run with 8:08 remaining to make the score 49-20.
"What we saw on tape all week really came to life,” Ingold said. “But I think what (running backs coach John) Settle really hit us on early was, you don’t score 49 just rolling out of bed. You’ve got to make it happen. We were able to do that today."
A big reason for the Badgers’ season-high point total came from their 357 rushing yards, the third straight game UW averaged more than six yards per carry. Jonathan Taylor carried 27 times for 159 yards, while Deal finished with 111 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries.
While Saturday’s overall performance fell far short of perfect, the Badgers’ recent rushing success stands as an encouraging development heading into tough road games at Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue over the next four weeks.
“It was awesome. That’s what it should be,” UW left guard Michael Deiter said. "It should be that because that’s what we’re good at, and that’s what we excel in. And then from there, it should help the passing game. ... How it (was) today is how it should be every week."