As the No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers prepare for a season with Big Ten title aspirations, the campaign begins in Las Vegas as UNLV plays host for the season opener Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium.
The matchup should be familiar, as a UW-UNLV game has been a frequent fixture of the two teams’ early season schedules. The two last met in 2007, when the Badgers squeaked out a 20-13 win in Las Vegas. Overall, the two programs have met eight times, with Wisconsin winning six of them.
However, the Rebels will be working under a new coaching staff in 2010, as Bobby Hauck takes over for Mike Sanford, who served as head coach since 2005.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin is relying on its experience to carry the team to another successful year after a 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten) season. The Badgers return 18 starters — 10 on offense, six on defense and two on special teams.
“It’s great,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said of his experience. “It’s one thing for me to feel comfortable. But it’s more important for the guys in the huddle to feel comfortable.”
Leading that huddle once again will be quarterback Scott Tolzien, a fifth-year senior and one of six captains, as voted by the players. In 2009, Tolzien enjoyed a breakout year in his first full season as a starter, throwing for 2,705 yards and 16 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.
“I’m most excited about the amount of guys we have coming back, the older guys,” Tolzien said. “The older you are, the most responsibility you have. We’ve got all the old guys, and we all have got to be accountable and carry the load for the young guys and just use that older leadership to keep getting better each day and make sure that a day doesn’t slip by.”
Also enjoying a breakout year in 2009 was starting running back John Clay. At 6-foot-1, 255 lbs, the junior has proven ideal for the power running game that has long been the staple of Wisconsin’s offense. Last season, Clay rushed for 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns on 287 carries, good for an average of 5.3 yards per carry. Clay is still getting back to full speed after ankle surgery in the offseason, so capable sophomore Montee Ball should see plenty of action in the opener.
For the Rebels, the Badgers’ prowess in the running game might spell doom. In 2009, UNLV was dead last in the Mountain West Conference in rushing defense, allowing 220.6 yards per game on the ground. Additionally, UNLV allowed 27 rushing touchdowns and opponents averaged 5.7 yards per carry on the ground, both worst in the conference.
“They have a new coaching staff, so it’s pretty much going to be all new to us,” UW tight end and captain Lance Kendricks said. “We try to take our basic plays and try to roll with that and go from there.”
On defense, Wisconsin boasts less experience but hopes to make up for it in talent and depth. Of the six returning defensive starters, three make up the starting linebacker unit — redshirt sophomore Mike Taylor (if cleared to play after offseason knee surgery) and sophomore Chris Borland will lineup outside, while redshirt senior and another a captain, Culmer St. Jean, will man the middle spot.
In the secondary, assistant coach Chris Ash has a four-man rotation that consists of fifth-year senior Niles Brinkley, juniors Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith and redshirt sophomore Marcus Cromartie.
“The message that I try to preach throughout the whole process is there’s no such thing as backups, there’s no such thing as number twos,” Ash said. “What they are, they’re one play away from being a starter and those backup guys, they have to prepare that way because it could be the first play of the game, last play of the game, could be in practice. One play, and the next guy’s in. So the next man has to be ready at all times.”
For UNLV, much of the offensive production comes from senior quarterback Omar Clayton. A dual-threat quarterback, Clayton threw for 2,230 yards with 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while also rushing for 238 yards and three touchdowns. Like the Badgers, the Rebels boast one of the most experienced offensive lines in their respective conference, as redshirt freshman guard Sean Tesoro is the only new starter.
However, UNLV will be replacing its top receiver, Ryan Wolfe, who led the team with 74 receptions, 760 yards and two touchdowns. At running back, the Rebels return two upperclassmen — senior Channing Trotter and junior C.J. Cox.
Entering the season opener, arguably the biggest challenge for Wisconsin will be to put together a dominant road performance in an effort to live up to expectations that are seemingly sky-high.
“You don’t want to listen to the outside world, but, yeah, we have high enough expectations for ourselves so we’re pushing hard and striving,” UW strong safety and captain Jay Valai said. “Anything but greatness will be unacceptable from this team.”