Last year the Wisconsin defense had the misfortune of facing four of the top quarterbacks in the country – Fresno State's David Carr, Oregon's Joey Harrington, Illinois' Kurt Kittner and Indiana's Antwaan Randle El.
This season is expected to provide the Badgers with a bit of a reprieve from the gauntlet of All-American gunslingers it faced last year. But the test they face this Saturday, UNLV's Jason Thomas, deserves to be listed amongst the top quarterbacks Wisconsin has seen over the past couple of years.
Thomas, a 6-4, 230-pound senior from Compton, Calif., was a Heisman Trophy contender heading into the 2001 season, but had a very disappointing campaign coming off shoulder surgery two months before the season.
"He didn't get the throwing time he needed (last) summer," said UNLV Coach John Robinson. "It's like a golfer that, all of a sudden his swing goes south on him…I don't think he was in pain, but it was a kind of subconscious protection and he never got into a rhythm."
Robinson is expecting Thomas to return to form this year, creating multiple problems with his quick feet and rocket arm. Thomas is best known for his explosiveness in the running game, but he can also throw the ball 70 yards in the air.
Containing Thomas is the No. 1 goal for the UW defense, which surrendered only 34 yards on the ground against Fresno State.
"This week is a much different preparation," said Wisconsin Defensive Coordinator Kevin Cosgrove. "Thomas is a big guy with pretty good speed and elusiveness. He can get out of the pocket, and he's dangerous when he has the ball."
The responsibility for preventing Thomas from breaking loose will rest primarily on the shoulders of defensive ends Jake Sprague and Erasmus James. The challenges they face against UNLV are more diverse than Fresno State, which ran far fewer bootleg and rollout plays than the Badgers anticipated.
Sprague said the defensive ends have put in extra preparation time this week because of the multiple challenges UNLV's option attack presents them.
"We've been stressing how much attention we have to pay to him, just keeping him in the pocket and not letting him run with the ball," Sprague said. "We have to keep him in the pocket and make him throw the ball from there, because once he gets to the edge and he can run with it, that's when he's dangerous."
The Badgers haven't faced a quarterback with quite the size and speed that Thomas has, but the preparation is similar to facing Randle El, who now plays wide receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Much like game planning against Randle El, the focus is on preventing the big play.
"I don't think (Thomas) can move as fast as Randle El, but he's the same type of quarterback," Sprague said. "We're going in with that same type of approach, where we have to contain him and keep him from running with the ball."
Defending the Option
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