From The Sports Network
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: Bobby Hauck gets his first taste of action in the Football Bowl Subdivision this weekend as the new UNLV head coach welcomes 12th-ranked Wisconsin to Sam Boyd Stadium in Sin City.
The winningest coach in Big Sky Conference history during his tenure at Montana, Hauck is trying to get the Rebels off on the right foot to begin the 2010 campaign and the team will attempt to win its home opener for the 18th time in the last 24 chances. Last season, UNLV got off to a 2-1 start, but a four-game slide after that and a record of just 3-5 versus the rest of the Mountain West Conference sealed the fate of then head coach Mike Sanford, even though it turned out to be the most successful season for the coach in Las Vegas. Sanford finished his five years in the desert with a record of just 16-43 and was a mere 8-32 in league play.
As for the Badgers, they ripped off five consecutive wins to begin the 2009 campaign, although all but one of them were decided by eight points or less and the only lopsided victory was a 44-14 triumph over Wofford. Back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Iowa derailed any hopes of a significant postseason appearance for head coach Bret Bielema and his boys. Nevertheless, Wisconsin was still invited to the Champs Sports Bowl and used the opportunity to defeat nationally-ranked Miami-Florida in a 20-14 final.
With a 10-3 record overall Wisconsin, which posted a 5-3 mark in the Big Ten Conference, finished as the 16th-ranked team in the nation according to the final AP poll.
With respect to the all-time series between these two schools, Wisconsin has won six of the previous eight encounters with the Rebels. The Badgers posted a 20-13 win in the most recent meeting back in 2007 in Las Vegas, with UNLV posting a 23-5 stunner in Madison four years earlier for one of its two victories in the series.
"Because of the injuries, we did find some things out," coach Bielema mentioned during the week leading up to this game. "I think at the wide receiver position you saw the development of Nick Toon, more of a complete receiver, more so than he has been in the past, really excited what he brings to the table. And at the tight end position, two guys that really had a nice camp, Jake Byrne and Jacob Pedersen, those guys, we all knew Lance was productive, but we really didn't know about those other two guys, and I like what those two guys will be able to bring. John Clay has been limited in a little bit, and the emergence of Montee Ball and James White has been very exciting."
Clearly, all eyes will be on Clay who ranked first in the Big Ten and 12th in the nation in rushing last year with his 116.7 ypg. Because of his efforts the squad ranked first in the conference and 15th in the country with a collective 203.9 ypg as well. But the team cannot get by on running the ball alone and following every move made by Clay, even if he was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
Quarterback Scott Tolzien has already proven that he can be a significant part of the offense for the Badgers as well, having led the conference in pass efficiency with a rating of 143.0. Tolzien passed for 2,705 yards, second-most in school history and because he was able to average more than 200 ypg, Wisconsin was one of only six teams in the country to average more than 200 ypg both on the ground and through the air.
Run defense is the name of the game for the Badgers, especially after last season when they ranked first in the Big Ten and fifth in the country with just 88.2 ypg allowed. The Badgers turned up the pressure later in 2009 as they held each of the last 10 opponents to 100 yards or less on the ground, the longest such run in the country last season and the best in school history. Regardless of what UNLV throws at them, the Badgers will be ready.
Obviously the unit will miss the presence of defensive end O'Brien Schofield who led the team with 12 sacks and 24.5 TFLs, but the good news is that J.J. Watt and Chris Borland will be making a return appearance after combining for 26 TFLs and 9.5 sacks last season. Borland, who earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, has a propensity for always being around the ball and still he is just getting started.
Watt is by no means flying under the radar, having been named to the preseason watch lists for the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Lott Trophy.
The offensive line for the Rebels is steeped in experience, offering Matt Murphy, John Gianninoto and Evan Marchal as seniors who have been through the drill plenty of times. Guards Jason Heath and Doug Zismann are just sophomores this time around, yet they are just as reliable and tough.
All of that is good news for returning quarterback Omar Clayton who worked his way through 11 games a season ago to throw for 2,230 yards and 13 touchdowns. However, playing from behind all too often, Clayton was also forced to take some chances that he might not otherwise have and those resulted in 12 interceptions along the way as well. Mike Clausen is again installed as the backup and, after completing better than 59 percent of his attempts last season, should have a strong grasp on the offense when and if he is sent in to guide the team again.
Running back Channing Trotter had his moments in 2009 when he led the team in rushing with 541 yards and nine touchdowns on only 114 attempts. He'll get even more carries this year, especially if Clausen is kept on the sidelines more. Nevertheless, it is nice to know that someone like Clausen (288 yards, seven TDs) can make such an impact.
With regards to what coach Hauck and his staff had to focus on heading into Fall camp, its was rather clear that overall defense was at the top of the list. "The first priority has got to be improve on defense. We can't be ranked 110th, or whatever it is, in defense and expect to be a good football team. You have to play better on that side of the ball...we'll continue to educate our team in the intricacies of the game and the finer points so we can decrease our error percentage when we get into situations during the season."
Coming back in as the top returning tackler for the squad is Quinton Pointer who tallied 72 stops in 12 games a year ago. The cornerback is tied with Starr Fuimaono as the top returners in terms of tackles for loss, both players having recorded four and a half in '09. However, what the squad needs to find is a replacement for Beauchamp who led the team in total tackles (95), TFLs (12.0) and sacks (6.5), and that will not be easy.
The secondary should be solid for the group, seeing as how there is so much experience coming back. But the real issue will be in the trenches as the group tries to figure out how to stop the run after giving up a massive 220.6 ypg a year ago, ranking them last in the MWC and tied for 112th in the country overall.
"What Wisconsin has to do, we have to do what we do better than they do," said coach Bielema during preparations for this matchup. "That means just forcing the ways of how we prepare and how we get ready for a game and being able to adjust to the little nuances of what they show us."
Chances are, Bielema and the Badgers won't have to worry all that much about what the Rebels are doing because the home team will just be trying to keep up the entire time.