TV: ESPN – Mark Jones (play-by-play), Bob Davie (color), Holly Rowe (sideline)
Site: Camp Randall, Madison, Wis. (field turf, 76,634)
Series: First Meeting
Rankings: Neither team is ranked
Coaches: UW – Barry Alvarez, 14th season, 94-62-4 .603; UNC – John Bunting, 3rd season, 11-16-0 .407
Last Meeting: First Meeting
Line: Wisconsin by 15
Recap of IC's Game Week Coverage
* Buck: Between the Lines
* Meet the Badgers
* John Bunting Q&A
* Barry Alvarez Q&A
* Heels prep for ‘Bludgeon Football'
* Bunting ‘encouraged' by what he sees
* On Campus
Where are William & Mary, Furman or The Citadel when you need them? These and other so-called cupcakes used to don the Tar Heels' non-conference schedule annually before John Bunting arrived. This week's opponent just fell from the national polls following a surprising upset, but Wisconsin begins its road back to the Top 25 beginning Saturday versus North Carolina. After having lost a school-record eight in a row at Kenan Stadium, the Tar Heels are happy to hit the road where they won their three games in 2002. With the bye week behind them, Carolina embarks on 10 straight games by making its first ever visit to Camp Randall. UNC and Wisconsin will complete a home-and-home series on Sept. 17, 2005, when the Badgers visit Chapel Hill.
Darian Durant is playing the best football of his career right now. So far this season, his passing has been accurate and his decision making sound. In what will be his 13th start, Durant surpasses UNC school records nearly every time he takes the field in this just his junior season. He is currently ranked 10th in the nation in passing, averaging 275.5 yards per game. Senior Jim Sorgi has 2,965 career passing yards and a 133.7 efficiency rating, as he enjoys just his first year as the full-time starter. He passed for a career-high 281 yards in an earlier win over Akron. While Sorgi is a solid signal caller, Durant is on the verge of becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. He is already arguably the best to ever play at Carolina.
UNC has gotten a little closer to determining the roles of its four talented tailbacks. Senior Willie Parker and true freshman Ronnie McGill share snaps, while Jacque Lewis and Chad Scott contribute with unique skills in different situations. The Tar Heels appear to becoming an effective rushing team, but aren't quite there yet. Wisconsin's Anthony Davis is a bona fide superstar in the Big Ten, but has not practiced this week due to an ankle injury he suffered versus the Rebels. Dwayne Smith was an adequate replacement, but don't be surprised if Davis finds a way to get into the action against the Tar Heels. Rushing is what the Badgers do best, therefore they have a slight advantage. If Davis returns close to 100 percent, the gap widens.
At 5-foot-7, Jawarski Pollock has proven that big plays can come from small players. He is averaging 83 yards receiving per game, on a team that has at least five serviceable receivers. Mike Mason has the tools to become one of the best Tar Heels at his position in a long time, and fellow true freshmen Jesse Holley and Adarius Bowman show equal promise. UW's Lee Evans needs three catches to pass Al Toon and become the all-time leader in career receptions. The senior captain already holds the school record for most yards in a career with 2,597. Evans, who was a Biletnikoff Award finalist in 2001, currently leads the Big Ten averaging 114 yards per game. Depth and Durant provide a slight edge to the Heels.
Carolina's offensive front is as solid as it has been in years. The linemen's protection for Durant has been close to perfect and it seems just a matter of time before the running game takes off. The Badgers offensive line, while providing the blocking for Davis, allowed eight sacks last week. That number will likely be much smaller this week against the Tar Heels' questionable defensive line, but eight sacks is eight sacks, demonstrating a serious problem.
The Tar Heels defensive woes are well known to this point in the season. Until some speed is developed through the younger players, Carolina fans will shudder each and every time an opponent has possession. Carolina has already implemented 11 true freshmen this season, and that number could increase this week as the defense tries to find a formula to stop opposing offenses. Linebacker Jeff Mack leads a UW defense that is holding opponents to just 31 percent on third-down conversions. And even in the loss, the Badgers held UNLV to just 94 yards on the ground. No contest here.
Whether it's because they read too many of their preseason press clippings or they're simply having to focus on backing up the front seven, the Tar Heels' defensive backs have yet to impress this season. After being picked apart by FSU's Chris Rix and undressed by Syracuse, severe questions have arose concerning what was supposed to be Carolina's defensive strength. The Badgers are inexperienced in their secondary, having two DBs make their first career starts last Saturday. Former walk-on free safety Jim Leonhard is the leader, after having led the nation last year with 11 interceptions and with one already this year.
The Tar Heels' special teams have made great strides this season, and much of the credit goes to UNC assistant James Webster. While Michael Waddell has struggled as a cornerback late in his career, his punt returning capabilities have Carolina ranked 14th nationally and leading the ACC in that category. The kicking tandem of Dan Orner and Topher Roberts has also been a bright spot. But the Tar Heels will have to know the whereabouts of Alex Lewis, who has already blocked a punt for a safety and blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown this year. Punter R.J. Morse has pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line five times this season, while Leonhard holds the Wisconsin record for punt-return average with 12.3 yards per return.
Prediction: Wisconsin 42, UNC 28