Game Day Grades: UNLV

MADISON - It's just the first game, but No.11 Wisconsin did a lot of things in its 51-17 victory over UNLV on national television to get fans excited for what's to come, particularly from the offense. Badger Nation publisher Benjamin Worgull hands out the grades from Thursday.

Quarterbacks

In a word: impressive. Senior Russell Wilson finished 10-of-13 passing for 255 yards and two touchdowns plus another 62 yards rushing and a third touchdown. He was solid, he was never out of control, he was electric and he was humble with his performance on Thursday night.

"I think it was a positive game for our football team," Wilson said. "Getting out there for the first time, I'm truly blessed to be here. I'm truly blessed to be a Badger and it was an exciting game."

More importantly, Wilson has showed himself as a true running threat. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema says it's important to go through the season with three healthy running backs, so consider Wilson's two carries for 62 yards and his 46-yard touchdown an extra benefit.

"There was a lot of hype about him and we kind of knew, but I don't think people had an inkling of the atmosphere control that he has," said senior Aaron Henry. "This kid is going to be a household name throughout Wisconsin and college football if he puts up performances like he did tonight."

Only two of Wilson's incompletions were his fault, leading tight end Jake Byrne too far and overthrowing Jacob Pedersen in the end zone. Like the class act he is, Wilson said he made an effort to get Pedersen a touchdown later in the game, which he did on the team's first drive in the second half. It's another testament to Wilson's character.

"I have been in this profession for a while and you can see guys that naturally got a little bit of something to them," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. "He's got some moxie, some savvy, some God-given ability that makes him love every single minute of the day. Russell is a guy that has been very impressive. You've heard me say it a million times but I think people will see that."

As impressive as it was to get Wilson going, it was important for the Badgers to give redshirt freshman quarterback Joe Brennan his first collegiate snaps. Brennan ran the offense for the final 17 minutes, 48 seconds and although he completed just one pass for three yards, the experience was invaluable.

"Huge, huge, huge for the quarterback to get in there and to be there in a situation where the game wasn't on the line," Bielema said. "Just to get some reps and for them to be quality is really a blessing in disguise with Jon (Budmayr)'s situation. He was able to get a lot of camp work again. If just happened a week ago with Jon, it would be difficult for Joey to go out and do what he did."

Grade: A+

Running Backs

Montee Ball is 25 pounds skinner. James White has about 10 pounds more muscle. Together, their new looks provided big dividends. Neither broke 100 rushing yards, but it's a misleading stat considering how effective the whole group was. White has a team-high 64 yards and one score followed by Ball's 63 yards. Ball, however, found the end zone three times, twice from 1-yard out and another one from 22 yards were he broke two tackles and high stepped over another tackle attempt when the defender when for his ankles.

"He had a great performance," said White of Ball. "He kicked it off from the start and he just kept it going throughout the game. Just look for more and more production each and every week."

Alternating by series, Ball finished with a 5.8 average and White with a 6.3. Neither played after Ball scored on a 1-yard run with 8 minutes 45 seconds left in the third quarter to make it 51-3. The success of the running game not only put plenty of points on the board, it helped Wilson's play-action pass, which was deadly and on point throughout.

"We feed off that," Bielema said of the running game. "You really see how that can open things in the play-action game."

Just as important as it was for the backs to get some carries, it was important to get some catches. Of the team's 258 passing yards Thursday, 148 came from his running backs, including receptions of 63 yards by Ball, 41 yards by White and a 40-yard scamper by Bradie Ewing that ended with him being tackled on the one.

"Last year, we weren't involved in the passing game too much, but (offensive coordinator) Paul Chryst said we're going to be involved this year," said White, who had 166 all-purpose yards (64 rushing, 40 receiving yards and 62 kickoff returns) and had two of UW's seven first-half plays of 22 yards or more. "We started that off right away. Russell said he's going to be looking for us if nobody is up down field and he sure enough hit us."

Even with all the hype surrounding Wilson, Ball and White reminded people that Wisconsin is still ‘Tailback U.'

Grade: A+

Receivers

As he started scampering to the end zone, Wilson thought he could out run his defenders, but knew he was going to need some assistance if he was going to beat the cornerback. Enter Nick Toon. Toon was wide open for what could have been a 30-plus gain, but fronted his defender and stymied him to allow Wilson to run over the goal line.

"Nick made a key block that helped me get in there," Wilson said. "I made sure to thank him first."

Toon looked solid in his debut and showed no signs of having gone through offseason foot surgery. In addition to his downfield blocking, Toon caught two passes for 54 yards, including one 39-yard jump ball where he used his frame to outreach his defender and set up a touchdown.

"It felt good," Toon said. "Every year, it's good to get the first one out of the way. I had a decent one today and we'll move forward to next week."

In addition to Toon, Pedersen (2 catches for 20 yards, one TD), Jared Abbrederis (1 catch for 23 yards) Jeff Duckworth (1 catch for 10) and Kenzel Doe (1 catch for 3) all got some work in.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

Good, but not great was the vibe Patrick Butrym gave off to the media following the Badgers 34-point triumph. The goods were Wisconsin put pressure on UNLV quarterback Caleb Herring throughout the contest, held UNLV to 2-for-12 on third downs (including missing its first nine) and nearly put two points on the board with Louis Nzegwu's sack at the one inch line.

The negatives were Wisconsin allowed two running backs over 60 yards, gave up 146 yards on the ground, managed just three sacks and couldn't create a turnover after UNLV fumbled twice.

"We did a nice job adjusting," Butrym said. "We gave up some big plays that we aren't pleased about and two touchdowns. We would have liked to gone without those. Overall, I think we did a nice job today."

Still, UNLV didn't run anything Wisconsin was expecting, causing a lot of adjustments along the sidelines and the second half was made primarily of reserves getting some much-needed repetitions. Throw in the fact that the Badgers didn't blitz often and did a lot of base defense looks, it's evident that first-year defensive coordinator Chris Ash doesn't want to put too much on film right away.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Whenever Bielema was asked about having Chris Borland and Mike Taylor back for an entire season, the head coach quipped that he has to get both of his young linebackers through an entire game first. Consider that goal practically achieved. Both Borland (team-high seven tackles) and Taylor (tied for second with six) competed Thursday before getting pulled last in the third quarter.

"Mike's a great guy and a great teammate," Borland said. "He's a heck of a player, too. I enjoy playing with him and Kevin Claxton, too."

Borland played OK, showing some the burst and intensity at times but also seemed to be thinking too much in his new position, making him a step slow. But after thinking he was going to be playing with pain all season, Borland was pain-free during and after the game.

"I feel probably the best I've ever felt after a game," Borland said.

Claxton finished with five tackles but the tackling needs to improve, which was the theme said throughout the post game. Claxton missed a tackle that would have prevented a fourth-down stop. UNLV eventually got a field goal on the drive.

Grade: C

Secondary

With UNLV running a lot of unbalanced offense and formations like the Pistol, the Rebels presented a challenge for Wisconsin's secondary out of the shoot. Even before Wisconsin could get into halftime and make the adjustments, the Badgers were mostly solid, allowing just 56 passing yards.

Antonio Fenelus was called for his first pass interference penalty in over two years on a third-and-7, leading the Rebels to their first touchdown when Phillip Payne made a fantastic catch over Devin Smith. That was the first of two passing touchdowns Wisconsin gave up in the final 17:53.

Tackling was an issue with the group, as both Marcus Cromartie and Shelton Johnson missed a tackle or an assignment. Smith was the best of the group with six solo stops, which was the most on the team.

"At the end of the day, we have to work on tackling," Henry said. "If we work on that and definitely work on our pursuit, we'll be a tough team to beat."

Grade: B-

Special Teams

With Philip Welch out at least another week after having a procedure done on his kicking leg, the Badgers will get another opportunity to break in redshirt freshman kicker Kyle French. Making his college debut Thursday, French performance was as expected, hitting six of seven extra points and a 29-yard field goal as the first half expired.

"He missed the second PAT, could have went south on us but he did a nice job with every kick after that," Bielema said.

Although he didn't run one of his patented fakes, senior punter Brad Nortman, who Bielema said had a solid fall camp, was finally called upon to work in the third quarter. He punted twice and had a 45-yard average.

"If there's a better punter in the country, I would like to see him," Bielema said. "He really has done a nice job for us. He doesn't get a lot of work sometimes. The first punt was outstanding."

Sophomore walk-on Alec Lerner averaged 65.5 yards on his eight kickoffs with no touchbacks.

With the Badgers looking for a replacement for David Gilreath, who is expected to make the Indianapolis Colts' 53-man roster, Wisconsin's duo of White and Abbrederis proved productive. Abbrederis handled three punts for 58 yards, including a long of 30, while White handled two kickoffs, returning one for 40 yards. It's early and the Badgers will face better coverage units, but that was a good sign.

Grade: B


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