A funny thing happened on the way to the forgone conclusion: With 6 minutes, 55 seconds left in the first half, his No. 7-in-the College-Football-Playoff rankings Wisconsin squad locking overmatched Illinois on the mat in a sleeper hold, Badgers coach Paul Chryst reached down deep and … released his inner Harbaugh.
On fourth-and-1 at the Wisconsin 41, the hosts lined up for a punt to try and pin the Illini back. Only the fake — FAKE! FAKE! FAKE! — was on. Upback Garrett Dooley took the direct snap and chugged five yards up the gut to move the chains.
The Badgers ran it two more times, Alex Hornibrook misfired a ball in the direction of Jazz Peavy, and Wisconsin wound up punting anyway.
And, yet, it raised an interesting point, even if, at the same time, it didn’t amount to any on the scoreboard. When you’ve already got control of the game — and your postseason destiny — how much is too much? When do you let up, and how hard do you push the pedal to the floor?
Wisconsin 48, Illinois 3 speaks for itself. But when No. 5 Ohio State — which you matched, toe for toe, just a few weeks earlier — is dropping 62 on Nebraska at home and then another 62 against Maryland on the road with ease, the impressive gets buried by the jaw-droppingly spectacular.
Substance, the Badgers (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) have by the bucketload.
It’s style points that could prove to be the unforeseen struggle down the stretch. Especially as the teams above them keep pushing the throttle, just because they can.
To put it another way, Wisconsin, ahead 31-3 at the break, threw the ball just three times in the second half and 14 times for the afternoon. Ohio State, ahead 45-3 at the half versus the Terps, chucked it 36 times at College Park — backup quarterback Joe Burrow had nine attempts — and didn’t apologize for a single one.
Urban’s gotta do what Urban’s gotta do. Take your eyes off the prize in November, disaster is lurking around the corner, waiting to strike. Just ask Clemson.
Paul Chryst downplayed the importance of style points on Monday. His running game is making things look very stylish this afternoon
— Benjamin Worgull (@TheBadgerNation) November 12, 2016
Rubbing the other guys’ noses in it isn’t really Chryst’s style, and that’s a compliment in this day and age. Plus, the reality is that neither Hornibrook nor quarterback-platoon-partner Bart Houston — the latter’s attempted catch on a halfback pass from Corey Clement, which ended with Houston on his backside, trying hard not to laugh, was a thing of comic beauty — are J.T. Barrett, the one-man force of quarterbacking nature. The only way the Badgers are laying 62 on anyone in 2016 is if someone spots them a 10-0 cushion first.
And, yet, Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall was also as damn near close to perfect as Bucky gets. Offensively: 455 total yards, 363 yards on the ground, 42:03 of possession to Illinois’ 17:57. Defensively, four interceptions of Illini quarterbacks, and, best of all, the fact the visitors went 0-for-9 on third-down attempts.
When Clement, Chryst’s starting tailback, could be seen early in the third quarter getting his left ankle re-wrapped, you wondered. The New Jersey native had injured that same ankle on a carry late in the second quarter of a 54-10 victory over Akron back on Sept. 10.
Then it all appeared to be much ado about nothing: No. 6 scored from two yards out with 14:18 left in the game to push the Badgers’ lead to 40-3 and net his third rushing touchdown of the day. The senior picked up his fourth 100-yard rushing game in the past five weeks (123 yards on 25 carries), while senior backup/running mate Dare Ogunbowale chipped in 103 more on seven totes. The Badgers produced two 100-yard rushers in the same game for the first time since the 2015 Outback Bowl (Clement and Melvin Gordon vs. Auburn). Wisconsin had possession for 12:31 of the third quarter — on just two series.
It wasn’t flawless, given how the Badgers’ corners were beaten high over the top on occasion. Although those occasions were also pretty rare, and Illinois’s No. 1 quarterback, Jeff George Jr., became the first Big Ten signal-caller since Michigan’s Denard Robinson in 2012 (Notre Dame) to throw four picks in a half without a touchdown. Even the Illini’s silver linings had clouds attached.
Your halftime stats: Jeff George Jr has 5 completions to players in white and 4 completions to players in red
— Evil Paul Chryst (@PaulChrystUW) November 12, 2016
Still, when you’re chasing the top 5, pushing for the top 5, there are people — College Football Playoff selection committee people, especially — who will look for nits on which to pick. The Badgers can’t do a thing now about the two seven-point losses to the Buckeyes and Wolverines squads looming over them on the leaderboard. All they can do at this point is take care of business.
Although taking it out on a lousy Purdue team next week probably couldn’t hurt.