Preview: Those Speedy Devils

After two ho-hum wins over two average opponents, No.11 Wisconsin hopes turning up the notch will do itself wonders. Not only is UW playing its first non-conference BCS opponent in three years, it could be playing its quickest, as Arizona State brings a fast-paced offense and stout defense to Madison.

MADISON - With an offense still searching for chemistry, having injuries to its starting right tackle, two wide receivers and its young stud linebacker and a team that has seen missed tackles and assignments go for big plays, one would think the timing of Wisconsin's first BCS non-conference opponent in three years would be construed as bad.

Quite the contrary. In fact, the timing, as UW Head Coach Bret Bielema put it, is ‘absolutely' perfect.

"It couldn't be better," he said. "There's nobody better for us to go against then somebody from out of conference that has a lot of similarities. They are big, they are quick and defensively, they remind you of some of the other teams in our league as far as the way they play and the schemes that they use."

No.11 Wisconsin can see if it can back up its head coach's enthusiasm as the Badgers prepare for the Big Ten schedule with their toughest opponent to date, as undefeated Arizona State comes to Camp Randall for a 2:30 nationally-televised kickoff Saturday.

After their less-than-impressive victory over San Jose State, the Badgers (2-0) dropped on 26 of the 60 Associate Press ballots. The players admitted to be off kilter, lacking flow and not operating at their full potential. Consider Arizona State Head Coach Dennis Erickson not one of those people buying into the assumption that Wisconsin is struggling.

"They are very disciplined, big, and physical in all aspects of the game," said Erickson. "Their running backs are unbelievable. They play three backs and they are going to run it any way they can run it. Their quarterback is an excellent player and he has been there. He throws a lot of play-action pass, so if you sneak up too much on the run they can then burn you deep."

Erickson knows his talent. Winner of two national titles with the Miami Hurricanes in 1989 and 1991, Erickson now has Arizona State winning games by its defense. Leading the Pac-10 and ranked No. 13 nationally in total defense a year ago after allowing only 297.6 yards per game, the Sun Devils allowed opponents only 108.6 rushing yards and 189 passing yards, tops in the Pac 10.

Led by linebacker Vontaze Burfict and defensive back Omar Bolden, the Sun Devils' defense has forced 10 three-and-outs in back-to-back victories over FCS opponents Portland State and Northern Arizona.

"You pop on the film and they have a very good football team," said Bielema, commenting that UW and ASU have similar principles and schemes. "Defensively, they are big up front and will be the biggest test for us since Miami. They've got big bodies up front, linebackers that can run and very energetic on defense."

The bugaboo with Arizona State last season was its inability to close out games, losing by five points or less four separate times. Part of the problem in the Sun Devils' 4-8 season and ninth-place finish in the Pac 10 was an offense that averaged only 21.5 points per game. Maybe that's why former Michigan quarterback Steve Threet has been such a welcomed addition to the offense.

After sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules, Threet, the No. 1 quarterback when Michigan beat Wisconsin in Ann Arbor 2008, has completed 67.1 percent of his passes (47 of 70) for 630 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions.

Threet is only half the problem that Arizona State presents. The Sun Devils have completed 54 passes to 13 different receivers, and the group moves quickly. Shooting to average 85 snaps per game, the Sun Devils have run 73.5 plays with an average time of possession is 26 minutes, 1 second. On the flip side, UW's 69-play average have a time of possession average of 35 minutes, 7 seconds.

"They are as fast as any huddle we've ever seen," Bielema said. "Their first two series of each game are very quick. It's a unique preparation"

Wisconsin will put a page of Bielema's past coaching playbooks and run two different offensive huddles. While one offense is running one play, the second group is getting the next play and preparing to run on the field right after the previous play has ended. This drill, in theory, will make Wisconsin's defense respond at a faster pace than what Arizona State can physically do.

"You exaggerate the pace so what we do (during the week will make) Saturday a little slower," Bielema said. "You say that, and you hope how it goes through, but we are definitely going to have our hands full with that type of preparation."

On the same accord, it will be hard for the Sun Devils' defense to match the prolonged scoring drives of the Badgers. While 13 of the 15 Arizona State scoring drives have been less than three minutes, seven of Wisconsin's offense's 11 scoring drives have been longer than three minutes.

"It's dramatically different philosophy, method of doing things than us," Bielema said. "I'll take a couple of quick scores, too. The way we handle our 365 days a year training is different from there's. Right, wrong or indifferent, it's just two different ways of going about things."

Playing its first regular-season non-conference BCS opponent since it opened the 2007 season against Washington State, Wisconsin has spent the week correcting its wrongs … and having some fun. With people starting to question some of the moving parts, the Badgers are starting to play like the pressure is off, which is going to help against their toughest opponent so far.

"Now that people are starting to doubt us, it puts a little pep in our step, because now we are the underdog," sophomore center Peter Konz said. "There's a little less pressure, so now we can go out there, fly around … and really give it. I think Coach Bielema is right. This is the game that is going to be so much fun and we can start getting some stuff done."

Arizona State (2-0, 0-0 Pac 10) vs. No.11/11 Wisconsin (2-0, 0-0 Big Ten)

Date/Time - Saturday, September 18 at 2:36 p.m. CT

Stadium – Camp Randall Stadium (80,321/FieldTurf)

Television - ABC (Mike Patrick and Craig James)

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas) and Satellite Sirus (ch. 91) and XM (ch. 197)

Series – Arizona State leads 2-0 (trails 1-0 in Madison)

Last Meeting - Arizona State won, 55-7, on Sept. 21, 1968 in Tempe, Ariz.

Wisconsin Notes:

The Badgers rank 17th in the country, averaging 245.0 rushing yards through two games. UW is one of just six teams in the country to have averaged at least 200.0 yards rushing per game in each of the last three seasons (2007 - 200.8, 2008- 211.2 and 2009 -203.8). Nevada, Air Force, Navy, Oregon and Florida are the others. Wisconsin is 22-2 under head coach Bret Bielema when running for at least 200 yards.

UW is 12-3 in QB Scott Tolzien's 15 career starts, and has scored at least 30 points in 10 games. In those 15 starts, The Badgers are averaging 32.1 points and 419.9 yards of offense.

The Badgers have won 26 consecutive regular-season non-conference games dating back to the 2003 season. The last UW loss to a non-conference foe came at home to UNLV on Sept. 13, 2003.

Wisconsin ranks second in the Big Ten and 23rd in the country in total defense, allowing an average of just 262.0 yards per game through its fi rst two games. Last year, UW yielded just 305.7 yards per game, holding eight of its opponents under 300 yards.

Arizona State Notes:

The Sun Devils are 14-5 against schools who currently play in the Big 10 Conference. The last time ASU faced a team from the Big 10 was 2005, when the Sun Devils beat Northwestern 52-21 in Tempe. Indiana is the only Big 10 school ASU has never faced. ASU's last trip to a Big 10 school was a 30-21 win at Northwestern in 2004.

Junior wide receiver Mike Willie had a huge game for the Sun Devils, catching eight passes for 114 yards and a score in his second career game. Of his eight receptions, seven resulted in fi rst down yardage for Arizona State, including three on third down and one on fourth. His other reception was the touchdown catch.

Last season, the Sun Devil rushing game totaled 24 runs of 10 yards or more, including two of 50 or more. So far in 2010, the Devils have had eight runs of 10 yards or more, including Cameron Marshall's 50-yard touchdown run against Portland State. Marshall owned the longest run from scrimmage in 2009, going 75-yards against Washington.

Through the first two games in 2009, Arizona State quarterbacks had combined to throw for 428 yards and two touchdowns. Through two games this season, Steven Threet has thrown for 630 yards and five scores.

Prediction

Bielema regaled the media on Monday about the time he was coaching at Iowa and he met Erickson in the coffee lounge and spoke to him. Odds are that Erickson doesn't remember that moment. What the veteran head coach does know is that he's had success at Wisconsin at two of his former stops. Holding a perfect 2-0 record in Madison, Erickson coaches Wyoming to a 21-12 in 1986 and No.3 Miami to a 51-3 stomping that set the tone for the Hurricane's national championship that season.

While Bielema will hope Erickson remembers this meeting, the real coaching battle will be between UW Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst and ASU Defensive Coordinator Craig Bray. Chryst is in possession of a running game averaging 245 yards per game while Bray has a defense that's second in the Pac 10 in rush defense (61.5 per game). If Chryst wants to pass with his explosive offense and his usually-steady quarterback, Bray can counter with a secondary that hasn't allowed more than 210 passing yards yet this year.

The spread is a challenging 14 points in favor of UW. A Wisconsin team clicking on all cylinders should have no problem besting Arizona State by that number, especially with some upperclassmen playing a mini-revenge card against Steven Threet. A UW offense not clicking on all cylinders may have to grind out another victory. I think there will be fewer bumps in the road, and Wisconsin gets an important BCS win.

Wisconsin 31, Arizona State 13

Worgull's Predictions

Straight up: 2-0

Against the Spread: 2-0


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