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Despite strong start, troubles snowball in Illinois loss to Wisconsin

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (2) is tackled by Wisconsin's Ethan Armstrong left Konrad Zagzebski during second half an NCAA college

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (2) is tackled by Wisconsin's Ethan Armstrong, left, and Konrad Zagzebski during the second half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

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Updated: November 8, 2012 12:21PM

MADISON, Wis. — In many ways, Illinois played better on Saturday.

But, in the end, it wasn’t nearly good enough. In a measure of how far this program has fallen, the Illini brought their A game and still lost 31-14 to the shakiest team Wisconsin has fielded in years.

Tied 7-7 at the half? Trailing 10-7 after three quarters? That’s progress for a team that was hammered by a combined 132-45 in its first three losses.

But a loss is a loss.

‘‘We did some things well,’’ said quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who ran for 84 yards and passed for 178, both season highs. ‘‘We felt good at times about how we were playing. But at the end of the day, when you lose, nothing really feels that good.’’

If Illinois (2-4, 0-2 Big Ten) doesn’t quite qualify for disaster relief yet, it’s getting close. Forget that talk about the cupboard not being bare; the Illini are a project.

The upcoming trips to Michigan and Ohio State look perilous. And even that homecoming game against high-octane Indiana is no gimme, although there were some Illini positives before 80,096 at chilly Camp Randall Stadium.

‘‘I was proud of the way we played the first half,’’ coach Tim Beckman said. ‘‘We just didn’t come out and do what we need to do in the second half. I know this football team is hurting.’’

The problem is, all the good feelings evaporated early in the fourth quarter, when Montee Ball scored on a nine-yard run and Jared Abbrederis caught a 59-yard touchdown less than two minutes apart, turning a taut 10-7 game into a 24-7 Wisconsin romp.

‘‘We have to be able to respond when something doesn’t occur the way we want it to occur,’’ Beckman said. ‘‘It kind of snowballs on us. We have to learn to react in a positive way and keep on fighting for four quarters.’’

Awkward syntax aside, things tend to snowball on teams that have less talent — and that seems to be the party line at Illinois these days.

Illinois’ running game, which averaged 3.1 yards (106 yards on 34 carries), was no match for Wisconsin’s previously struggling running game, which averaged 5.2 yards (173 yards on 33 carries).

‘‘Let’s give credit to Illinois for making us sweat,’’ said Ball, who finished with 116 yards and two TDs. ‘‘They did a great job. But we were supposed to come into this game and do what we did.’’

For all their troubles, the Badgers (4-2, 1-1) remain the favorite in the bizarre Leaders Division, where two legends (Ohio State and Penn State) are banned for the postseason.

And the Illini will keep doing what Charlie Brown did when Lucy promised to hold the ball.

‘‘We had a players-only meeting [Friday] night,’’ defensive end Michael Buchanan said. ‘‘We talked about playing every snap and not beating ourselves. We came out on fire and played a very good first half. In the second half, they got momentum off a couple big plays. That’s one of our biggest issues, playing through adversity.’’

With struggling teams, it usually is.

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