MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin running back Montee Ball said he needed this. So did the rest of the Badgers.
Joel Stave threw two touchdown passes and Wisconsin's running game showed signs of life late as the Badgers defeated Illinois 31-14 on Saturday.
Struggling on offense for much of the year, Wisconsin has had an offensive line coach fired, two starting quarterbacks and a Ball that looked very little like the guy that tied the NCAA record last year for touchdowns in a season with 39.
But Ball rushed for 116 yards on 19 carries and said it finally felt like the Wisconsin of old as the Badgers took over in the fourth quarter.
"It was a different feeling this season," Ball said. "But I've always been behind my offensive line, and I knew they would get the job done. I knew I would get my chance and I wanted to make sure I wasn't going to let them down. My job is to make guys miss, and I did it."
Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) came into Saturday with an offense that ranked last in the conference overall and was putting up just 56 yards rushing a game. But Wisconsin ran for 173 yards, with 96 of that coming in the fourth quarter.
The offensive struggles of the Illini (2-4, 0-2) continued, however, with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase the only positive. He finished with 178 yards passing and 84 rushing as Illinois gained 287 yards overall.
Scheelhaase ran for a 5-yard touchdown in the first quarter and threw for an 8-yard touchdown to Ryan Lankford to make it 24-14 late in the game.
But Jared Abbrederis fielded the ensuing onside kick, and Ball scored his second touchdown to snuff out any hopes of an Illinois comeback.
Ball has 69 TDs (63 rushing, six receiving) in his career, nine shy of tying the FBS record held by Travis Prentice of Miami of Ohio from 1996-99.
Abbrederis caught Stave's 59-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that put Wisconsin up 24-7 and gave him his third consecutive game with more than 100 receiving yards since returning from an injury. He finished with seven catches for 117 yards.
"Our defense played really good today, but it was good to be able to see our offense move the ball, especially when it counted," Abbrederis said.
The Badgers capitalized on a pair of Illinois miscues for their other second-half points.
With the game tied at 7-7, Stave hit Derek Watt for 26 yards, and Illinois defensive back Terry Hawthorne was called for a personal foul on the hit, putting the ball at the Illinois 33.
Following the collision, Hawthorne lay motionless on the field and was put on a stretcher and taken off in an ambulance, giving a thumbs up as he was loaded into the vehicle.
The drive ended when Kyle French made a 46-yard field goal.
Coach Tim Beckman said a CT scan was negative, and Hawthorne was expected to be on the team flight home.
Illinois' next drive stalled near midfield, and a shanked 10-yard punt by Justin DuVernois gave Wisconsin good field position. James White had a 22-yard run, Stave hit Abbrederis for 15 yards, and Ball ran it in from 9 yards out to put Wisconsin up 17-7.
"We've got to learn how to respond," Beckman said. "If it's not a good play like a shanked punt or something like that scenario, we've got to react in a positive way instead of letting it hurt us for the remainder of the game."
As Wisconsin's offense has struggled, coach Bret Bielema has gone back and forth between Stave and Danny O'Brien at quarterback. Stave started the game, but Bielema went to a third option at the end of the first quarter, bringing in Curt Phillips.
Phillips has had multiple surgeries on his right knee, has thrown just 13 passes in his career and hadn't played since the 2009 regular season finale at Hawaii. He handed off to end the first quarter, kept the ball for a 2-yard loss to open the second and gave way to Stave on third down.
The juggling didn't work. Stave was picked off, with Steve Hull returning the ball to the Wisconsin 28. Scheelhaase completed a pass for 23 yards to give the Illini first-and-goal at the 5 before running it in on the next play.
Stave, who later hit White for a 62-yard touchdown on a screen pass, said coming out of the game didn't hurt his rhythm, and the ball got away from him on the interception. He finished with 254 yards through the air.
Bielema said the offensive coaches have been working on a package with Phillips, and the switch was planned. Still, he praised Stave.
"He doesn't do everything right. Obviously, he's going to get better with every game," Bielema said. "What he gives us out there is really, really something special."