Las Vegas (NV) — The lights went out for UNLV long before the lights literally went out at Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday night. However, it wasn’t the highly touted Badger offense delivering the punches early on for UW. Instead, surprisingly, for the second straight game, it was the UW defense making reparations for the Wisconsin offense by forcing their opposition into early turnovers.
Jim Leonhard once again made his presence felt early as he intercepted the third down pass of UNLV quarterback Jason Thomas. Leonard broke on an out route thrown by Thomas to set the Badger offense up at UNLV’s 28-yard line.
This was the first play in a string of turnovers that plagued UNLV for the entire first half and throughout the game. Five turnovers in the first half led the Badgers to a 24-7 halftime lead despite squandering several opportunities on offense.
“Other than one series, our defense played well. Five turnovers in the first half was excellent,” said head coach Barry Alvarez. “We saw a lot of new things, and I thought they adjusted well on the run to make some plays, but I am concerned we aren’t taking advantage of them on offense.”
The lone UNLV score came just before the half. UNLV went to their two-minute offense and was able to march into Wisconsin territory and score on a 15-yard run by tailback Joe Haro. The drive took only 1:16 and covered 55 yards.
Other than the lone UNLV scoring drive, the game was dominated by an opportunistic Wisconsin defense capitalizing on Rebel fumbles. UNLV put the ball on the grass four times in the first half. Turnovers were few and far between for the UW defense that was abused by opponents last season.
“We focused on being opportunistic through camp and through spring. You have to make plays, and what we want to do is make plays as much as possible,” Jeff Mack said. “If the ball slips out, or the interception is right there, then we have to make that play and get us off the field.”
The good defensive performance at UNLV comes on the heels of a four-turnover outing to open the season against Fresno State.
“We put emphasis on [turnovers], and our kids are around the ball,” commented defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove. “We have a lot of guys around the ball, and that is what you have to do. We are very pleased that we had all the turnovers in the first half.”
UW’s defense is young, but coaches are pleased by these early indications and are happy with the speed at which the defense picked up new concepts and delivered on the field this season.
One group that has shown the most improvement is the linebackers. In the first half Alex Lewis and Jeff Mack combined to cause two fumbles, while Kareem Timbers made a nice play to intercept a shovel pass from Jason Thomas. The good play came from a group with only one player with any starting experience entering the season.
Even with the injury to Lee Evans, the Wisconsin offense struggled more than most expected in the first two games. Wisconsin’s defense forcing opponents into fumbles and interceptions is a saving grace. Coaches, fans and players alike hope the turnovers are becoming contagious for their opponents and will continue.
“I hope [the turnovers] become contagious,” Mack said. “I think we got them out of sync a little bit. It was their first game, and they had first game jitters, and they made some mistakes.”
Last year the Badgers opened the season with one win and one loss. In those two games the Badger defense played fairly well, accounting for four turnovers. By comparison, this year’s team racked up nine takeaways in their first seven quarters of action. The team gave an average of just 14 points on 309 yards per game. The season is young, but those numbers are a marked improvement over last season’s averages of 28.8 points per game and 370.8 yards per game.
The early takeaways against UNLV allowed the Badger offense to get out to a 24-0 lead midway through the second quarter. The lead was too much for UNLV to overcome as the Badger defense began to stiffen and only allowed the Rebel offense 36 yards in the second half, after giving up 260 yards over the first two quarters of play.
“I think at the beginning they had good momentum and had some drives, but they self-destructed,” Mack said. “After a while, we settled down and made our checks and went to the huddle and talked to the coaches, then it became us.”