Wisconsin tops Illini to halt losing skid
On third-and-17 at midfield, Gilreath made his move on a short pass. Two, actually.
Gilreath's weaving 49-yard TD effort midway through the third quarter provided the missing spark, rallying Wisconsin over Illinois 27-17 on Saturday and snapping the Badgers' longest losing streak in 12 years.
Dustin Sherer threw both of his TD passes to Gilreath and leapt over the pylon on a 15-yard scramble for another score for the first touchdowns of his career.
"It feels like we just won the national championship," Gilreath said. "The guys are all in there jumping around for good. It just feels good. We're trying not to stay on a big high, but it's been a long time. It's been over a month since we won a game."
In a month, Wisconsin (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) lost its first four conference games and went from ranked ninth in the country to one of the biggest disappointments in major college football along with Clemson. It led to a week of worry around the Wisconsin program that included several empty bleachers in the normally jammed student section.
"When you win football games, all of sudden I'm 20 points higher on my IQ," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "Everybody feels a little bit better."
The Badgers finally got their first conference win by intercepting Juice Williams three times, including two long returns that set up points and left Illinois (4-4, 2-3) irate.
"If we are going to be a winning team and beat this curse that we have on us of not having two winning seasons in a row, we just got to be smart," said Illini linebacker Brit Miller, who finished with 16 tackles and broke up three pass attempts.
It sure looked like Illinois would give coach Ron Zook his first win here early in the second half.
Wisconsin cornerback Niles Brinkley could only shrug his shoulders questioning who was covering A.J. Jenkins, left wide open on a 14-yard TD throw from Williams that gave Illinois a 17-10 lead. Three defenders covered another receiver on the play.
But Wisconsin came back because of Gilreath's effort and it helped settle Sherer, the junior who took over as the starter last week for similarly erratic senior Allan Evridge. Gilreath made four would-be tacklers miss on the play.
"Just the desire to get in the end zone was kind of the spark that turned everything," Bielema said.
On the next possession, Brinkley intercepted Williams when the ball tipped off a receiver's hand and Brinkley's 47-yard return set up a 38-yard field goal by Philip Welch to give Wisconsin a 20-17 lead with 12:11 left.
Wisconsin's defense made another stop and Sherer, who finished 12-for-22 for 174 yards, capped the 10-play drive by rolling right and throwing behind Gilreath on an 8-yard TD catch for the final margin with 3:28 remaining.
"He kind of just lets things happen," Bielema said. "He's a roll-off-the-back kind of guy, a guy that handles the game as it comes to you."
Williams' interceptions, which tied a career high, killed the Illini momentum and gave Wisconsin much needed confidence with a struggling offense that didn't start running back P.J. Hill, hasn't had a 100-yard rusher in five weeks and may have lost its biggest playmaker in Travis Beckum.
Beckum, who skipped a chance at the NFL to return for his senior season, made two catches for 16 yards, dropped another and injured his left ankle blocking in the third quarter and did not return. Bielema said he'd know more about Beckum's injury on Sunday.
Williams just wasn't as dynamic as he'd been in the previous three weeks and finished 17-for-32 for 221 yards with two TD passes, including a 2-yarder to Zach Becker early in the second quarter.
Juice also squeezed reporters following the game, declining to talk about his performance after the Illini gained a season-low 309 yards of offense.
"Juice didn't play very well," Zook said. "I think that's the thing as a coach you constantly try to guard against. You know, he had a couple big games and then he didn't play very well. You can't throw three picks and be a good quarterback."
A year ago, Illinois began Wisconsin's tumultuous slide with a 31-26 win in Champaign. Including that loss, the Badgers have dropped eight of the last 16 games, but believe they've finally got their season back on track.
"I just knew that we had to get our swagger back," said Allen Langford, who had the third interception. "We had to go out there and play with some more energy and fun again, and we were able to do that."