BRYAN FAUST/Herald photo

Bret Bielema chose to welcome Wisconsin's student body into Camp Randall Thursday to witness the end of practice, giving some of the new freshmen at the University of Wisconsin an early taste of college football in Madison.

The second-youngest coach in Division I football — at 37 years old — let his inner child come out when talking about the intense mood inside the stadium during the festivities.

"I just wanted to shoot that little gun with the T-shirts in it. I always kind of wanted to do that," Bielema commented. "You see guys shooting it off at games; it's pretty fun."

The students who came out to watch practice filled only half of two sections, and yet still managed to create an excited atmosphere with the entertainment provided by members of the football team, UW's lovable mascot Bucky and Wisconsin's band and cheerleaders.

For Bielema, who will take the field at Camp Randall for the first time ever at the Wisconsin helm, it was a small preview of what it will be like to play in front of over 80,000 Badger fans for the first time in 2006.

"I'm excited to play … for the first time at Camp Randall for me as a head coach," Bielema said.

In preparing for Division I-AA opponent Western Illinois, Bielema said his troops bounced back from a shaky practice on Tuesday — the first day of classes for the Badgers — with a terrific workout on Wednesday.

"Wednesday was a very, very good practice," Bielema said Thursday. "I thought [Wednesday] was our best practice of the year to this point. Today, [we] came out, shined and polished [the game plan]."

Part of Wisconsin's game plan involves stopping a couple of potential big-time playmakers on the Leatherneck roster. Seniors Reggie Gray (60 catches in 2005) and Marco Thomas (794 yards) each produced over 700 yards receiving, and, according to Bielema, they have the potential to derail Wisconsin's plan for an easy victory.

"They've got two wide receivers with experience," Bielema said. "I really expect them, especially early on in the ball game, to take some shots not only from an offensive standpoint but also from special teams.

"[We] expect them to try to get the unexpected play. That's what we've been practicing on all week. We know it's going to happen. You just have to defend it."

Senior safety Joe Stellmacher, one of the Badgers who will be assigned to containing Gray and Thomas, was named UW's fourth captain for the Western Illinois game this past Monday. Bielema explained Stellmacher's work in the offseason and in UW's season opener led to the decision.

"He knows not only what he needs to do, but what everybody else is doing as well," Bielema said. "He just embodies everything that we ask, and there's not a better competitor on our team."

On the offensive side of the ball, there's no quicker way to lose ground against a lesser team than to turn to the ball over, and the Badgers got off to a good start last week against Bowling Green. After hearing Bielema preach about ball security throughout fall camp, the Badgers responded by not fumbling once and turned over the football one time on a freak interception.

UW senior tackle Joe Thomas said that as Wisconsin's ball security goes, so goes the Badgers' season.

"It's huge. So many points are lost and gained in the turnover battle," Thomas said. "It just takes the wind out of an offense if you're giving the ball up, especially in the run game, so to be able to hold on to the ball is a really important part of our offense."

Henry Mason, the mentor for one of UW's youngest units as the Badgers' receiving coach, said the home opener will be something special for all the players who will take the field at Camp Randall Stadium for the first time in a game.

"I'm excited to see them be excited about being there," Mason said.