Fresh off a loss to top-ranked Alabama, it just doesn’t get any easier for San Jose State — at least that’s what No. 11 Wisconsin hopes.
UW enters its home opener 1-0 after defeating a pesky UNLV team on the road last weekend. Up only 17-14 at halftime, the Badgers rode a 24-0 third quarter en route to a 41-21 win over the Rebels.
Despite the 20-point win, which featured a dominant performance by the UW defensive line and classic Wisconsin running game, the Badgers found plenty to work on during the week. While the offensive line paved the way for 278 rushing yards against UNLV, guard John Moffitt wasn’t completely satisfied with the line’s play.
“A big thing was just finishing plays better,” he said. “I think we left a lot of yards out on the field, I think that was a real point of emphasis.”
“I agree with Moff completely, be it up front, we can do a much better job; the backs can do a better job, the quaterbacks, the receivers, you can go right down the line” offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. “ We did some good things, but there’s a lot of room for improvement and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
One thing the Badgers will be certain to focus on is eliminating turnovers. Quarterback Scott Tolzien threw an interception returned for a touchdown against the Rebels, and receiver Nick Toon had a costly fumble in the red zone which led to another UNLV score. Aside from the turnovers though, the UW offense rolled along, with Tolzien finishing an effective 15-of-20.
The highlight of the night was the effectiveness of the running game. UW predictably went with a ground-first approach, running the ball on 12 of 14 plays in its first drive. Junior John Clay led the way with 123 yards and two touchdowns, with backups Montee Ball and James White proving more than capable of spelling the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
“The Big Ten’s a bruising conference, you’re going to need multiple backs, because guys are going to get banged up,” Tolzien said of UW’s backs. “You’ve got to have that next man mentality, next guy in, you don’t miss a beat.”
Alabama gashed San Jose State for 265 rushing yards, a good sign the Badgers may stay on the ground when possible.
On the defensive side, head coach Bret Bielema said sophomore linebacker Mike Taylor will start Saturday, after missing the opener due to knee rehab. Taylor tore his ACL last season against Iowa, cutting his promising freshman season short.
While Taylor will return, fellow sophomore linebacker Chris Borland will not start, though Bielema said the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year could still make it into the game. Borland injured his shoulder in the third quarter of the UNLV game.
The Badgers’ pass rush and run defense looked to be in top form against the Rebels, racking up four sacks and helping to hold UNLV to 12 yards of offense in the first half. While the secondary wasn’t tested often early in the game, both of the Rebels’ offensive touchdowns came through the air.
“We’ve just got to improve on our fundamentals still,” defensive backs coach Chris Ash said. “Just improve on our knowledge of situations, like the red zone, sudden change situations — we gave up touchdowns in both those situations.”
The defense may not be tested through the air much this week either. San Jose State runs a pistol offense, a variation of the shotgun, which favors the run as opposed to the pass. Essentially an extended I formation, the tailback may line up as far back as nine yards behind the line of scrimmage. Nevada used the pistol offense to lead the nation in rushing last season.
“[Against] Alabama, the first series, [SJSU] went right down the field,” Bielema said. “It’s something we know we’re going to have to get a feel for as the game goes on.”
While SJSU did manage to drive the field against Alabama, all the Spartans could manage was a field goal. The Crimson Tide held the Spartans to 174 total yards in the 48-3 Alabama victory.
Although the Badgers only have that one game to assess the Spartans on film — San Jose State just started using the pistol offense this season — it’s better than nothing.
“You can get a look. Alabama has a lot of good players, so it’s good tape to watch,” senior linebacker Blake Sorenson said. “We don’t have the personnel that Alabama does, so we’ve got to do some things that are different.”
Provided Wisconsin eliminates its turnovers and can keep the offense rolling, the Badgers could win their 15th consecutive home opener and run their regular season win streak to 27 against non-conference opponents.