MADISON, Wisconsin — Illinois' next potential starting quarterback impressed in a late-game audition.
Still, Aaron Bailey's fourth-quarter performance Saturday against Wisconsin likely won't be enough to ease the pressure on embattled Illini coach Tim Beckman.
Bailey ran for a 29-yard score and led Illinois on another touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter to cut into a 24-point deficit, but Illinois fell to Wisconsin 38-28 in large part because it could not stop the run.
"We tried to pressure in the middle like we had been doing, trying to puncture the run, trying to get as many guys in the box as we possibly could," Beckman said. "It hurt us when we got out of the gaps."
Illinois (3-4, 0-3 Big Ten) can take a little comfort from Bailey's outing. He played for the first time this year in the fourth quarter with the team trailing by 24, forfeiting a potential redshirt season for the dual-threat sophomore.
The Illini offense did show life late after getting into a mid-game funk with starting quarterback Reilly O'Toole. Bailey finished with 12 carries for 75 yards, and was 2-of-5 passing for 39 yards.
Beckman indicated that Bailey might be ready to start, leaving uncertainty at quarterback again following the injury last week to Wes Lunt. Beckman said the plan all along was to play Bailey, regardless of how disruptive the Wisconsin pass rush might have been in the second half.
"I didn't feel like I'd redshirt. I felt my time would come," Bailey said.
After drawing within 10 with 2:53 left on Donovonn Young's 1-yard touchdown run, Illinois had another shot to cut into the lead after recovering an onside kick.
But Bailey threw an interception with 2 minutes left to seal Wisconsin's win. His fluttering deep pass was tracked down by safety Peniel Jean at the 2. Wisconsin ran out the clock from there.
"We worked hard and competed for four quarters. We just didn't have enough in us," Beckman said.
Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1) started Joel Stave at quarterback, but Gordon did most of the damage against the league's worst rushing defense. The junior eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season in just Wisconsin's sixth game, a school record.
Gordon's most impressive run may have come with 1:16 left in the second quarter, when he took a first-down handoff from the Wisconsin 22 but got tripped up as he burst through a hole.
But the stumbling Gordon regained his balance and ended up with a 46-yard run to the Illinois 32. Rafael Gaglianone hit a 44-yard field goal four plays later for a 24-14 lead going into the half.
Gordon, who finished with 27 carries, is a lethal combination of power and breakaway speed made all the more dangerous when the Badgers' beefy offensive line opens up running lanes.
"He is — the — best player I've ever been around — his ability to change the game at any moment," coach Gary Andersen said.
It didn't really matter who was handing off the ball to him. All week, Andersen maintained that both Stave and Tanner McEvoy would take snaps behind center.
On Saturday, Stave ended up supplanting McEvoy, who had started the first five weeks. Stave, who reclaimed the starting job he held last season, presents more of a deep-passing threat. McEvoy, a mobile quarterback, played just one series.
The best play call was simple: handoff to Gordon.
Wisconsin stopped Illinois on fourth-and-2 from the 36 with 2:42 left in the second quarter.
Badgers receiver Kenzel Doe followed with a 34-yard gain on a sweep. Gordon took the next handoff 30 yards for a touchdown.
"A great running back has a great line. Without them they're nothing," Illinois linebacker Mason Monheim said. "They're dominating."
Both teams now get a bye week to rest. Illinois' week off might be a bit more unsettling.
"There is a lot of negativity that surrounds this program right now," Beckman said in recounting his postgame talk. "I told them that it's only what we think inside our football family that really matters."
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