Illinois spotted No. 25 Wisconsin an early 21-0 lead Saturday night and watched Badgers running backs Melvin Gordon and James White run wild.
Yet somehow the Illini were in the game at halftime, trailing 28-17.
Then the Badgers used a pair of bruising third-quarter drives to grind down the Illini (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten), sending them to their 16th-straight Big Ten loss, 56-32.
Gordon and White combined for 240 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Illini coach Tim Beckman, frustrated with team's defensive showing, found a silver lining in the way his team fought back from the early hole.
"This team at least fights, they'll fight to the end," Beckman said.
But for senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, staying in the game against Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) wasn't enough.
"What we need to understand is that nobody is going to feel sorry for us, nobody is going to care what teams we've lost to," he said.
Gordon had 142 yards and three touchdowns, giving him 1,012 yards for the season. He said a 21-0 first quarter lead was key.
"That momentum at the beginning was important," Gordon said. "We knew we had to come out fast, especially on the road. They tried to take it from us but we took right back."
Gordon went over the 1,000-yard mark on a 13-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that put the Badgers up 42-17. It capped the second of two bruising, third-quarter drives that put Illinois away. White finished the first with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Joel Stave.
On a day when Michigan and Indiana combined for 1,319 yards of offense and 110 points, the decisive Badger drives looked like old-time Big Ten football — using tough backs, smart running and short passes to put a lesser opponent away and stay close to Ohio State in the Big Ten Leaders division.
White took a short toss from Stave for his touchdown, lunging hard through a tackle to tuck the ball over the goal line. The touchdown ended a nine-play, 75-yard drive that chewed up just over five minutes and put Illinois on its heels.
Gordon's score wrapped up a five-play, 56-yard drive as he took the handoff and charged into the line, saw nothing there and used his speed to bounce outside and easily cover the 13 yards that put the Badgers up by 25 at 42-17.
Illinois was all but done.
Chris Borland, Wisconsin's leading tackler, said he hurt his right hamstring covering a punt in the first quarter. He never returned, watching much of the second half in street clothes.
His absence didn't improve Illinois' ability to run. The Badgers entered the game as the 10th-best run defense in the country, giving up 90.1 yards a game. Josh Ferguson led Illinois with just 25 yards on seven carries. Borland's backup, Marcus Trotter, made the most of his shot with a team-high nine tackles.
Illinois lost both starting cornerback V'Angelo Bentley and receiver Miles Osei to injuries. Bentley wore a walking boot on his left leg on the sideline but no information about the extent of his injury was available. Beckman said he thought Osei may have suffered a concussion.
Illinois' offense revolved around Scheelhaase, who had 249 yards passing. Steve Hull caught six passes for 105 yards.
After Wisconsin breezed to its 21-0 first quarter lead, Illinois spent the rest of the night trying to catch up.
Gordon's first-quarter touchdown covered 26 yards and showed off his speed. He ran into a small gap on the left side of the Illini line and, with speed that seemed to surprise the Illinois defense, quickly cut past what briefly looked like a potential tackler and sped into the end zone. With 6:03 left in the first quarter, Wisconsin led 14-0.
Illinois tried a reverse to open its next possession, but Scheelhaase couldn't handle backup quarterback Aaron Bailey's pitch, bobbling it before it dropped to the ground. Wisconsin defensive end Ethan Hemer recovered the ball at the Illini 8.
Three plays later, Stave hit tight end Brian Wozniak a yard deep in the end zone for an easy score.
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