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Stocco leads Wisconsin comeback vs. Illinois

Oct 28, 2006 - 7:43 PM MADISON, Wisconsin (Ticker) -- John Stocco and Wisconsin shook off a woeful first half.

Stocco threw two second-half touchdowns as the 17th-ranked Badgers rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat Illinois, 30-24, in a Big Ten Conference matchup.

The Fighting Illini (2-7, 1-4 Big Ten), who led by as much as 21-3 late in the second quarter and took a 14-point advantage into the break, lost their fourth consecutive game. They held second-half leads in all four contests.

"I thought our guys played well for spurts, but weren't able to put it all together in the second half," Illini coach Ron Zook said. "We played a great first half, especially defensively. Entering the second half we felt good, but Wisconsin answered the way that a good football team does. They didn't get worried and they just played their game."

Illinois held a 24-10 lead and got the ball first to begin the second half. But freshman Juice Williams was intercepted by linebacker Mark Zalewski at the Illinois 44, and Wisconsin climbed within a touchdown on a 17-yard pass from Stocco to Luke Swan.

"That was big coming in off the half," Badgers defensive end Matt Shaughnessy said of Zalewski's interception. "We had to get something going. We needed a spark and that set it right up."

After Wisconsin pulled within 24-20 on a 21-yard field goal by Taylor Mehlhaff late in the third quarter, the Badgers forced a three-and-out. Stocco promptly moved the hosts down the field, and on the first play of the fourth quarter, he threw a short pass to Andy Crooks and the tight end rumbled 22 yards to the goal line. Crooks fumbled the ball into the end zone but recovered for the go-ahead score with 14:39 to play.

Mehlhaff gave Wisconsin a 30-24 edge with a 33-yard field goal with 4:27 to play, and Illinois had two fruitless possessions thereafter, with Williams getting sacked by Shaughnessy near midfield with no time left.

The Illini mustered just 86 total yards in the second half after collecting 206 in the first two quarters.

Stocco completed 15-of-26 passes for 217 yards with an interception for the Badgers (8-1, 5-1), who have won five straight games since a loss to Michigan. The senior - who engineered his fifth comeback victory after trailing in the fourth quarter - had been just 4-of-11 for 59 yards in the first half.

"I thought it was very interesting to see the game unfold and see how he handled it," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "You can't faze him no matter what happens. It's not only the plays that he makes, but our offense entirely. We need someone to control the game."

With the triumph, Bielema set a Wisconsin record for wins by a first-year coach.

"At halftime, I went into the team before the coaches went in there," Bielema said. "I explained to them it was just like any other ball game we have been in. Whatever happened in the first half is over with, and what we need to do is go out in the second half and execute Wisconsin football.

"The coaches came in and explained what they needed to do and I thought they had great ears. They responded in the right way and enabled us to get a victory."

P.J. Hill, Wisconsin's star redshirt freshman running back, was limited to 50 yards on 12 carries after twice getting hurt on tackles, once in the second quarter and once in the third.

Williams was 13-of-29 for 171 yards, a TD and an interception. He was just 2-of-16 for 49 yards after the break.

Illini freshman free safety Travon Bellamy opened the scoring by returning an interception of Stocco 41 yards with 3:34 left in the first quarter.

After the Illini forced a three-and-out, E.B. Halsey let a punt bounce, and it skimmed off his leg. Wisconsin's DeAndre Levy recovered at the Illinois 13, leading to a 21-yard field goal by Mehlhaff on the first play of the second quarter.

But Williams threw a two-yard TD pass to Pierre Thomas, and after defensive tackle Chris Norwell sacked Stocco and recovered a fumble at the Wisconsin 24, Thomas scored on a one-yard run for a 21-3 lead with 5:45 to play in the second quarter.

Backup tailback Lance Smith scored on a one-yard run with 1:44 to play in the half, but Illinois marched right back down the field. On 3rd-and-goal from the 3, tight end Jeff Cumberland dropped a sure TD pass from Williams with 12 seconds left, and Illinois had to settle for a 20-yard field goal by Jason Reda and a 24-10 halftime lead.

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