Right, so none of the things that happened were actually supposed to happen. The undefeated No. 6 Badgers were supposed to dismantle 2-4 Illinois. Jonathan Taylor, the best running back in the country, was supposed to front Wisconsin’s first-rate ground game. Illinois, winless against Big Ten opponents this season, was supposed to allow the Badgers to rack up oodles and oodles of rushing yards. Illinois’ magnificently-bearded head coach Lovie Smith was supposed to be thrust onto the hot seat. But what do you know? A few quarters of neck-and-neck football, a devastating late Wisconsin turnover and a last-second Illini field goal later, 31-point underdog Illinois pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Big Ten history—certainly the biggest of this college football season—to hand Wisconsin their very first loss, 24-23.
Wisconsin led 23-14 early in the fourth quarter, and seemed headed for victory with the ball deep in Illinois territory. But Taylor, who rushed for 132 yards on 28 carries and today became the third player in FBS history to reach 5,000 rushing yards before his senior season, lost a fumble at the Illinois 25. The Illini got downfield quickly and scored on quarterback Brandon Peters’s 29-yard touchdown pass to receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, which cut Wisconsin’s lead to two with six minutes remaining.
The next Badgers drive was cut short at midfield when quarterback Jack Coan’s pass on third down was intercepted by cornerback Tony Adams, a corner-turned-safety reverted back to corner this game for the first time this season. An Illinois win, all of a sudden, felt like a real possibility. On the last drive of the game, Illinois set up kicker James McCourt perfectly for the winning 39-yard kick, and he made it without a problem.
Whatever the playoff and conference championship implications for Wisconsin, this was a fun one for its sheer improbability. Forget not losing a single game this season, the Badgers had not trailed in a single game this season; four of their six games had been shutouts and they hadn’t given up more than 14 points in any of them. That their hot streak ends at the hands of a team 12 years removed from its last win against a ranked Big Ten opponent is college football at its most capricious and delightful. “For our program, we needed a signature win,” Lovie Smith said, a little hoarsely, after the game. “I was just hoping today was the day and the day came.”