Wisconsin lost defensive leader Chris Borland to injury early on Saturday and even with an early three-touchdown lead struggled to put Illinois away.
So the No. 25 Badgers put the game in Melvin Gordon's hands and he delivered.
Gordon rushed for 142 yards and three touchdowns to lead No. 25 Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) to a 56-32 rout of Illinois. James White backed him up with another 98 yards in 20 carries and two touchdowns.
"The offense was very powerful tonight," Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. "They ran the ball extremely well."
Gordon, who has 1,012 yards for the season, said the Badgers' 21-0 first quarter lead was a key to the game.
"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."
Illinois coach Tim Beckman said defense was a problem for the Illini (3-3, 0-2) , but so was a running game that managed just 72 yards on 29 carries against one of the top run defenses in the country.
"When you play against a team like that, you've got to be clocking on all cylinders," he said. "Defensively, we didn't tackle well in space."
Borland, the team'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.
"I just couldn't play," he said. "It's going to be OK, they've already started to take care of it."
Andersen said he expects him back soon but is glad to have a bye week coming to give the linebacker time to heal.
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.
Before the drives, Illinois had found ways to claw back from an early 21-0 deficit and trailed 28-17 at halftime.
"Defensively we played hard and flew around the field," Andersen said. "(But) we're better than that on D. We have to be better than that."
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 and on its way to its 16th straight Big Ten loss.
Borland's 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' offense revolved around quarterback Nathan 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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