Still Building the Foundation

Struggling to a 2-11 record under first-year head coach Bobby Hauck, UNLV is coming to Camp Randall Thursday with another young team, but the Running Rebels have skill players on offense that can cause opposing defenses some problems.

MADISON - Wisconsin co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash had plenty of time to prepare for his team's first opponent a season ago. There was just one problem.

With UNLV welcoming a new coaching staff, Ash had little use watching Rebels game film. Since UNLV hired Montana coach Bobby Hauck, Ash instead spent a good deal of time studying film of the Grizzlies.

"There were a lot of unknowns going into that game," Ash said. "It was a slightly different offense than we were ready for, so there was a lot of scrambling on the sideline, trying to get things corrected and make adjustments."

Hampered by turnovers and uncertainty early, the Badgers took only a three-point lead into halftime against the lowly Rebels, who finished 2-11 last year. Wisconsin finally exerted its will in the second half en route to a 41-21 victory.

Ash hopes the Badgers will be better prepared for UNLV this time around when the two teams meet on Thursday – college football's opening night – at 7 p.m. at Camp Randall.

" Hopefully, going into this game, we'll have a little bit better idea of what they're doing," Ash said. "You never know. First game is always a big test just to see what they're going to come out and do."

Statistically, UNLV's offense is highly unimpressive. The Rebels ranked 118th out of the 120 Division I-A teams in total offense (274.2 yards per game) last season. But with UNLV returning its leading rusher and top two receivers, Ash thinks the Badgers could have their hands full.

"They've got a good group of skill players. They really do," Ash said. "It's probably the strength of their team."

Tim Cornett rushed for 546 yards as a true freshman a year ago and became the first Rebels player in 16 years to score four touchdowns in a game in UNLV's win over Wyoming last November. Senior wideouts Phillip Payne and Michael Johnson combined for 91 catches and 1,260 receiving yards in 2010. Payne needs just six touchdowns to pass Henry Bailey, who caught 24 between 1991 and '94, for the school record.

While Wisconsin held Johnson to just two catches for nine yards last season, he responded with 16 catches for 270 yards over his next three games. He caught eight passes for 138 yards, both career highs, in the Rebels' victory over New Mexico last September.

"They have certain weapons on the team that can definitely hurt any team in the country," senior cornerback Devin Smith said. "They definitely have good players, good athletes. They're just a team that we're going to have to be ready and prepared for. You don't know exactly what they're going to come out with, but we just have to be ready regardless."

While Wisconsin's record-setting offense received most of the attention in 2010, the defense quietly went about its business.

The Badgers ranked in the top 30 nationally in points per game (20.5), total yards per game (323.5) and passing yards per game (191.8). Behind defensive end J.J. Watt, a second-team All-American, the Badgers surrendered the fourth fewest rushing touchdowns (7) in the country.

With Wisconsin returning seven starters, and with linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor expected to be healthy, Smith hopes for big things again this year.

"We definitely have something to prove this year," said Smith, who served as the team's nickelback in 2010. "We just want to go out there and be one of the best defenses in the country. That's just every single play, having the opponent fear us. That's what we really have in our mindset this year."

After being named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009, Borland suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the team's Sept. 18 victory over Arizona State.

Knee injuries have forced Taylor to miss time each of his first two years in the program. Despite the challenges, Taylor still managed to earn All-Big Ten honorable mention last year.

"Hopefully, they're both out there and healthy on game day, come this Thursday, and hopefully out there playing well and doing some good things for us," Ash said of Borland and Taylor. "We're excited to see what they can do. Chris has just missed so much football and we're excited to get him out there in a game and watch him play."

Badger Nation Top Stories