This year, at least as far as the head coach is spinning it, South Dakota will provide more of a tune-up challenge when No.6 Wisconsin hosts the Coyotes at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall.
"I think South Dakota, not anything against Austin Peay from a year ago, I think South Dakota's a very much more experienced and better football team overall," Bielema said. "So, that challenge presents itself."
The Governors were not much of a test for Wisconsin last season. Starting with its 70-3 loss in Madison, a game in which the Badgers put up 608 yards of total offense and scored on their first nine possessions, Austin Peay lost its final eight games to finish an ugly 2-9. Needless to say, South Dakota (2-1) has a little bit better resume.
Raising some eyebrows last season after beating Minnesota in Minneapolis, the Coyotes earned their first-ever win over a No. 1-ranked team since moving to Division I FCS status when it beat defending FCS champion Eastern Washington in week 2, doing it with an efficient offense (rushing for 198 of its 324 total yards), holding the Eagles to 11 rushing yards and forced two turnovers.
"This is a big win for us," South Dakota head coach Ed Meierkort said following the game. "This is the level we're supposed to be at. We are an FCS team now to be reckoned with. We can play with anybody and we provided it today."
Meierkort, who was the head coach at UW-Stout from 1993-2003 and is in his eighth season at South Dakota, has his school ranked No.?20 in the FCS coaches poll, but admits that his team is overmatched compared to his squad.
Throw in the fact that the team is busing the approximate 500-mile, 8-hour journey from Vermillion, S.D., to Madison over two days – leaving after practice Thursday, staying Thursday night in Onalaska and working out Friday morning at UW-La Crosse before finishing the trip – and it's going to be a challenge.
"It's going to be tough for us to keep this game civil," Meierkort said.
Don't expect South Dakota to just take its $425,000 guarantee and roll over, as the Coyotes return a lot of veteran players from last year's squad, including quarterback Dante Warren. The key player in their win over Minnesota, recording 433 yards of total offense and five touchdowns, Warren has passed for 488 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 185 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and two touchdowns.
The Coyotes run a 3-4 base defense run by former UW defensive end Jake Sprague and held its last two opponents to 13.5 points, a big turnaround after South Dakota lost 37-20 in the opener at Air Force.
"We're playing a lot faster," said sophomore Tyler Starr, who had two sacks in last week's 48-10 rout of NAIA opponent Northwestern Oklahoma State. "We're making tackles and we're a lot more explosive."
Even with No.9 Nebraska coming to town for the conference opener next weekend, the Badgers are sticking to their one week at a time focus, and putting in the extra time to ensure the program continues to have success.
"We really strive and believe, and our kids believe it, the one thing we've been able to establish is that we know how to win football games here," Bielema said. "The formula is come over Sunday, get what we need to get done, take (Monday), get as much overtime as they want. Anytime they want to commit to (Monday's) football is strictly on their time. It's nothing scheduled by us.
"I always tell kids overtime is the time when you really gain the benefit of if you're a guy that's working a 40-hour-a -week job, you get paid time-and-a-half or double with overtime. Same thing with football players. If you want to put in extra time, the success you're going to have is winning bowl games (and) NFL opportunities.
"Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, we've got to work the way we need to work, and Saturday we need to execute."
South Dakota (2-1, 0-0 Great West Conference) vs. No.6 Wisconsin (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten)
Date/Time - Saturday, September 24 at 2:37 p.m. CT
Stadium –Camp Randall Stadium (80,123/FieldTurf)
Television - BTN (Tom Hart, Derek Rackley and Jay Wilson)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas), Sirius Ch.112
Series – Wisconsin leads 1-0-0
Last Meeting – Wisconsin won, 48-7, on Sept. 20, 1975 in Madison
This will be the sixth-straight season UW has faced an FCS opponent. The Badgers have won the previous five meetings with FCS schools by an average of 27.2 points. That includes a 70-3 victory over Austin Peay last season.
The last time Wisconsin faced a team from the Great West Conference was 2008, when the Badgers defeated Cal Poly, 36-35 in overtime. UW had to rally from a fourth-quarter deficit and the winning margin came on a missed PAT by Cal Poly in OT.
Former Badger defensive lineman Jake Sprague is in his fourth season as an assistant coach at South Dakota. Sprague, who lettered at UW from 1998-02, is the Coyotes' co-defensive coordinator. Sprague got his coaching career started at Wisconsin, spending three seasons with the Badgers as a graduate assistant and quality control assistant.
South Dakota head coach Ed Meierkort spent 11 seasons as the head coach at UW-Stout before taking over at South Dakota in 2004. He was named the WIAC Coach of the Year in 2000, leading Stout to a 10-1 record and a perfect 7-0 conference mark.
The 20-point mark has become significant for UW under Bielema. The Badgers are 34-2 in his tenure, including 12-straight wins, when limiting its opponent to 20 points or less. Conversely, Wisconsin is 47-5 under Bielema when scoring more than 20 points.
Wisconsin is one of five teams in the country averaging at least 230.0 yards rushing and receiving through its first three games (Georgia Tech, Oregon, Missouri and Alabama are the others).
The Badgers have scored at least 40 points five of their last six regular-season games. After averaging a school-record 41.5 points per game last year, UW is tied for 11th in the country at 45.0 points per game. After three games last year, Wisconsin was averaging 29.3 points.
Wilson is one of just three players in the country to average more than 10.0 yards per play of total offense. Tevin Washington of Georgia Tech leads the country at 14.2 yards per play, Wilson is second at 11.7 and Robert Griffin III of Baylor is third at 11.0.
South Dakota Notes:
The offensive line remains a consistent strength of the Coyotes, who lose starting guard Scott Slotten, but return four starters. That group is led by first-team all-conference selection Tom Compton, a senior now entering his fourth year as a starter. Compton, an emerging NFL prospect, anchors the left-tackle position for the Coyotes and earned All-America status from PhilSteele.Com in 2010.
Another position of strength for the Coyotes is wide receiver, led by junior Will Powell. Powell, a second team All-GWC selection a year ago, caught 47 passes for 933 yards and 10 touchdowns, all team highs.
Senior Jim Thompson (Hayward, Wis.) has two interceptions on the season to lead the team. His second pick came at the right time as he took a 4th and 3 Bo Levi Mitchell pass to the house for a thrilling 67-yard pick-six Sept. 10 as the Coyotes upset defending national champion Eastern Washington.
The Coyotes lead the conference on third down percentage at a 47.6 clip. Nationally, they are 18th in third down percentage.
Is Montee Ball the best running back in the country nobody has heard of? Flip on a national college sports talk show and Ball's name never seems to come up. Chalk that up to the Russell Wilson effect, but it's obvious that nobody is putting up the gaudy numbers Ball has in the last year.
Since Nov. 6, 2010 Ball has scored 21 rushing touchdowns. That is more than every other Big Ten team over that span except for Illinois. Only five Big Ten TEAMS have scored more offensive touchdowns than Ball since Nov. 13 (20 TDs).
Ball has scored at least one touchdown in each of his last nine games, having rushed for 22 TDs since Oct. 23, 2010. No other FBS player has more than 15 rushing scores over that span, and Ball has four more total touchdowns that Oregon's LaMichael James, whose name has been tossed around for the Heisman Trophy the last two years.
Ball's 91 rushing yards last Saturday give him 1,659 for his career, placing him 19th all-time at Wisconsin, and is 5.37 yards per rush in his career is fifth all-time at UW (min. 300 attempts). With Wisconsin's massive offensive line going against an undersized defensive line, expect Ball to run wild until he's pulled midway through the third quarter.
Seriously though, I don't care if South Dakota is returning 19 of 22 starters, if the Badgers can't run over a team picked to finish fourth in the Great West Conference, they should be kicked out of the Big Ten in an emergency conference contraction vote. One site had the Badgers as 44-point favorites. Yeah, that should be about right.
Wisconsin 56, South Dakota 10
Straight up: 3-0
Against the Spread: 2-1
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