Kevin Cosgrove and Jeff Mack are vital to the Wisconsin defense. Cosgrove, the defensive coordinator in his 13th year on staff, is the head. Mack, the senior middle linebacker, is the heart.

But until a clutch fourth-quarter goal-line stand against Akron last Saturday, the vital signs of the UW defense resembled those of someone forced to watch an Orioles-Devil Rays doubleheader.

All told, the Zips amassed 534 yards of total offense. Thank goodness for the Badger defense, Lee Evans, Anthony Davis and company rolled up 591. Needless to say, Cosgrove and Mack seemed a bit embarrassed.

“We kind of strayed away from our fundamentals in the second half,” Mack said. “That’s what the coaches are preaching this week. When you’re tired, you still have to play with your fundamentals. That’s just something we have to work on.”

“[Our players] aren’t happy about what went on,” Cosgrove added. “They understand why it happened. We’re working hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The Badgers know it can’t happen Saturday against UNLV. The Rebels have averaged 26 points en route to a 1-1 start.

And head coach Barry Alvarez was vehement at Monday’s press conference that UNLV is a much better team than the one Wisconsin shellacked 27-7 in last year’s famous “blackout game” in the desert. The main reason: the improvement of junior quarterback Kurt Nantkes.

In two games, he’s thrown for 485 yards and three touchdowns, garnering an impressive passer rating of 124.9. After Akron quarterback Charlie Frye torched UW for 372 yards and two touchdowns (one rushing), Nantkes has to be eager.

“They’re similar quarterbacks,” Cosgrove said. “Akron’s game was a sprint-out game. UNLV will do some sprint, but it’s a lot of drop back. I would say [Nantkes] is more comfortable in the pocket, although he’ll leave the pocket if he needs to.”

But the Rebels have some depth to their attack. Senior running back Larry Croom has rushed for 225 yards and two touchdowns on the season. And the UW defense was unable to contain what Cosgrove called a very basic Akron running game, as the Zips gained 162 yards on the ground.

More than anything, however, the Badgers will have to contend with a good tight end in junior-college transfer Greg Estandia. After facing Big Ten studs such as Dallas Clark of Iowa, Bennie Joppru of Michigan and Ben Utecht of Minnesota last season, Wisconsin’s defense knows full well what kind of extra dimension a good tight end adds to an offense.

At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, Estandia is in the mold of those tight ends. According to Alvarez, his 75-yard, two-touchdown game saved the Rebels in their opening win over Toledo.

“A lot of times tight ends can be a finesse type of tight end or a very brutal, physical tight end,” Mack said. “There’s not a lot of times that you find a combination of both. So this week we’ll see what he’s all about. More than anything, [we have to] play our technique correctly, try and make the quarterback not see him, read somewhere else, check down or check out of a pass to him.”

Wisconsin will be bolstered by the return of junior defensive lineman Darius Jones, who sat out of the Akron game to serve a one-game suspension. With the injury to Erasmus James, a UW defensive line once praised as the strong point of the defense is now dangerously thin.

That will give more playing time to freshman lineman Joe Monty. He’s the brother of Pete Monty, UW’s all-time leading tackler and a player recruited by Cosgrove, who was impressed by the play of Joe against Akron.

“Joe had a good camp. He’s been ready to play,” Cosgrove said. “He’s a guy we know we can count on if we need to. I’m sure [after] what he put in the game last week, he’ll see some more playing time this week.”