CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Braedyn Locke threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to offensive lineman Nolan Rucci with 27 seconds left Saturday, capping an 18-point fourth-quarter explosion by Wisconsin that gave the Badgers a stunning 25-21 Big Ten win over Illinois.
“I still can’t believe it,” Rucci said. “It’s like a dream. I saw the ball in the air and it seemed like it was coming to me in slow motion.”
Locke said he thought his throw to a wide-open Rucci in the end zone was high.
“Nolan made a great adjustment to the ball,” Locke said.
That’s not how Rucci described the pass and catch that ended a 14-play, 83-yard drive.
“The ball was perfectly thrown. I’m a tall guy,” said the 6-foot-8, 300-pound red-shirt sophomore. “We repped the play five or six times in practice this week and I caught the ball every time. The passes Braedyn threw in practice were just like the one he threw (in the game).”
Locke was 21-of-41 passing for 240 yards and two touchdowns in his first start since taking over for the injured Tanner Mordecai. Braelon Allen, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, ran for 145 yards for the Badgers (5-2, 3-1).
“Braedyn showed incredible poise. We put him in a tough situation (down 21-7 entering the fourth quarter) and he performed well,” said Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell.
Fickell also showered praise on Allen, who ran for 11 yards on a third-and-10 play to keep the winning drive alive.
“Braelon runs angry,” Fickell said. “Even though we had confidence in Braedyn, Braelon needed to shoulder more of the load (Saturday). When the game is on the line, you’ve got to get the ball to your horses.”
Fickell said he saw a fire in his team in the fourth quarter that opened his eyes.
“When we were down 21-7, I’m sure a lot of people had their doubts that we could come back,” he said. “For the first time in 10 months, I saw something from our guys in the fourth quarter that I hadn’t seen before. Resilience, fight and grit.”
Illinois coach Bret Bielema said the homecoming loss was a tough one to swallow, especially considering it was in front of 54,205 fans, the largest crowd of the season at Memorial Stadium.
“I thought we did enough good things to win,” Bielema said. “We were locked in and we had a good game plan.”
Luke Altmyer threw two short touchdown passes, passed for 100 yards and ran for 100 yards for Illinois (3-5, 1-4). Kaden Feagin rushed for 97 yards as the Illini gained a season-high 223 yards on the ground.
Ahead 14-7 at halftime, Illinois added to its lead on a 12-yard touchdown run in the third quarter by Feagin.
Wisconsin scored on a 41-yard field goal by Nathanial Vakos and a 20-yard pass from Locke to Will Pauling in the fourth quarter that was followed by a two-point conversion pass from Locke to Riley Nowakowski before Locke’s TD pass to Rucci.
Pauling (seven catches for 95 yards) was Locke’s favorite target.
Wisconsin was plagued by mistakes in the first half, but trailed by just a touchdown.
Illinois got an early turnover when Locke scrambled out of the pocket, was hit from behind by All-American Jer’Zhan Newton, and fumbled. Miles Scott fell on the ball on the Illinois 46.
That launched a drive that ended with a 1-yard TD pass from Altmyer to a wide-open Tanner Arkin in the end zone. It was Arkin’s first career catch.
Wisconsin botched an opportunity to score in the second quarter when Gavin Myers dropped the snap on a 27-yard field goal attempt by Vakos and Illinois recovered on the Wisconsin 18.
The Illini took advantage of the miscue, cashing in with a 12-play, 82-yard touchdown drive that took 7:53. It was the longest TD drive of the season for Illinois in both time of possession and yardage.
Altmyer’s 17-yard run to the Wisconsin 4 on a fourth-and-two play set up a 3-yard TD pass from Altmyer to Tip Reiman, who wrestled the ball away from Alexander Smith at the goal line.
Wisconsin’s offense suddenly came to life late in the first half. The Badgers went 73 yards on eight plays and scored on a 4-yard run by Allen, who ran untouched into the end zone with 31 seconds left.
FIVE YEARS AGO
This was the first time Wisconsin won a Big Ten game that it trailed by at least 14 points in the fourth quarter since a 2018 game against Purdue. The Badgers beat the Boilermakers 47-44 after being down 27-13.
Newton was ejected for targeting on a sack of Locke that was confirmed on a video review with 10:02 to go in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin scored 15 points after Newton’s ejection. A frustrated Bielema said he will appeal Newton’s one-game suspension.
“I thought Johnny led with his hands, not with his helmet,” Bielema said. “That call turned into a game-changer. Your best player makes a great play and you go 30 yards the other way. It’s maddening. It’s insanity.”
NOT HIS FIRST TD
Rucci said the last time he caught a touchdown pass in a game was during a freshman game in high school in Lititz, Pa. He said he was playing tight end at the time.
The gametime temperature was a balmy 70 degrees, but a 20 mph wind out of the west that gusted across the field made punts, kickoffs and many passes an adventure.
Wisconsin: With the comeback win, the Badgers moved into first place in the Big Ten West. Iowa lost to 12-10 to Minnesota at home and slipped to 3-2 in the conference. Iowa and Wisconsin are the only Big Ten West teams with a winning conference record.
Illinois: The Illini will take a week off after the gut-wrenching homecoming defeat. How will they respond after two weeks to think about the loss?
Wisconsin: The Badgers will play host next Saturday to No. 3 Ohio State.
Illinois: After a bye week, the Illini will travel to Minnesota on Nov. 4.