Moving to 3-0 after surviving the environment, and three missed field goals, at 21st-ranked Fresno State, tenth-ranked Wisconsin was flying high, literally, and headed into the conference opener in two weeks with a full head of steam.
"It was a high point because we won the game, came off the field and felt pretty good about things," Head Coach Bret Bielema said. "Obviously we went into a bye week and we all know how the rest of the season went after that (4-6). That was the last time I really remember feeling really, really good. I know our guys put a lot into that preparation and a lot into that day."
Although the team and situation is different, Wisconsin is hoping that another victory over Fresno State in Madison this Saturday would give the Badgers a better end result in 2009.
In last year's game, which was dubbed the biggest game in the history of Fresno, Wisconsin relied heavily on its run game, getting 112 yards on 26 carries from junior P.J. Hill. With the Bulldogs returning nine starters on defense, the Badgers know what to expect from this unit. "Playing them last year was big for us," senior tight end Garrett Graham said. "They are a physical, hard-nosed team that flies around and makes plays. I am glad we got to play them last year so we somewhat know what to expect."
Wisconsin (1-0) was one of only 27 schools in the nation to return its entire coaching staff from the previous season, allowing the members of the staff to maintain continuity with its players and build upon the shortcomings of last season.
As long as Pat Hill is the head coach of Fresno State, the Bulldogs (1-0) will never be on that list, not by a long shot.
With the continued success of Hill's program during his 13-year tenure at the school, Hill has been forced to replace 33 assistant coaches. He's on his seventh offensive coordinator in the past seven years, has hired three new assistants to his staff this year and promoted a new defensive coordinator (Randy Stewart), after long-time coordinator Dan Brown lost his two-year battle with brain cancer.
After losing four games by a combined 14 points last season, three of which by three points (including the loss to Wisconsin) and watching six starters go down with season-ending injuries after playing the Badgers, the new switches, however, have appeared to mesh with the Bulldogs.
Fresno State, returning 18 starters from last year's team, opened the season with a 51-0 home victory over FCS opponent UC Davis, amassing 511 yards of total offense and limited Davis to 43 rushing yards, all the while seeing their starters play sparingly and their freshmen get experience as the game wore on.
"We played very well in all phases," Hill said of the contest. "We played at a high level in the first half and we got a lot of guys' game experience, (which) is what we needed. That night, we were just really ready to play football."
Although the Bulldogs returned five of last season's top six receivers, Fresno State, behind three returning lineman and their top four retuning running backs, carried the ball 52 times for 310 yards and five touchdowns.
Junior quarterback Ryan Colburn won the starting job, but didn't get much work in during his first start, as the Bulldogs passed the ball only 13 times.
"We'll get a lot better gauge this week," Hill said. "It's a completely different challenge than it was last week. It's the type of games you love to have on your schedule to see what type of team you have."
The same could be said about Wisconsin, who trotted out 10 new starters in last week's 28-20 victory over Northern Illinois. After being the aggressors through three quarters, allowing NIU to gain just 151 yards and score only six points, the Huskies scored 14 points and gained 123 yards to make it a one score game, as a UW victory wasn't secure until senior Chris Maragos deflected away a fourth-down pass attempt.
The thing Wisconsin needs to gauge now is what players are going to be fully available to play, as at least 10 players have experienced flu-like symptoms at the beginning of the week.
"It's nothing crazy or extra-ordinary," said sophomore J.J. Watt, one of the players experiencing the symptoms. "We're trying to be protective and our trainers have done a great job with us, making sure everybody is safe and things are sterile. A lot of people are getting better because of it."
One thing is for sure, Fresno State isn't going to care if the Badgers have the sniffles.
"This is a character builder really," Watt said. "This is a test of our character and overcoming this is only going to make us stronger."
Fresno State (1-0, 0-0 WAC) vs. Wisconsin (1-0, 0-0 Big Ten)
Date/Time - Saturday, September 12 at 11:02 a.m. CT
Arena – Camp Randall Stadium (capacity: 80,321 / FieldTurf)
Television - ESPN (Dave Pasch, Bob Griese and Chris Spielman)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas)
Series – Wisconsin leads 2-1
Last Meeting - Wisconsin won, 13-10, on Sept. 13, 2008 in Fresno, Cali.
In his first career start, quarterback Scott Tolzien completed his first six passes. He finished the game 15-of-20 for 257 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for a QB rating of 179.44. His 257 passing yards were the most for a Badger QB in his starting debut in school history.
Wisconsin has won 15 straight non-conference home games, dating back to 2003. Only two of those games have been decided by less than 10 points.
In addition to his 80-yard touchdown reception, Isaac Anderson also scored on a 23-yard run (the first two TDs of his career). He is the first UW player to score on the ground and through the air in the same game since P.J. Hill had four rushing TDs and a receiving TD vs. The Citadel on Sept. 15, 2007.
Wisconsin totaled 281 yards passing against Northern Illinois. Last year, UW only passed for more than 260 yards once (329 vs Marshall, Sept. 6, 2008). The Badgers had two players post at least 80 yards receiving (Anderson with 100 and TE Garrett Graham with 82) vs. Northern Illinois. Last season, Wisconsin had a receiver post 80 yards or more in a game on just three occasions.
Of the 29 players that appeared on Wisconsin's offensive depth chart vs. Northern Illinois, just three (TEs Garrett Graham and Mickey Turner and QB Dustin Sherer) were seniors. That is the fewest number of seniors to appear on UW's offensive depth chart in a season-opener since 2003 (QB Jim Sorgi and WR Lee Evans). It is also the fewest number of seniors among Big Ten schools (Ohio State was second with four seniors in their offensive depth chart).
Fresno State Notes:
In the next four games, the Dogs will play in four different time zones and log close to 15,000 miles. The journey begins this Saturday at Wisconsin, followed by a Friday night clash with preseason WAC favorite Boise State in Fresno, then a long road trip to Cincinnati before an even longer road trip to Hawaii. During the 2009 season, Fresno State will play in five of the six United State's time zones and travel over 23,000 miles.
Fresno State's 14 wins against schools in BCS conferences since the 2000 season rank second behind Utah for most in the nation. Fresno State has won four of the last five games against teams from BCS conferences (Kansas State, Georgia Tech, Rutgers and UCLA). The lone loss was to No. 10 Wisconsin 13-10 in 2008.
There are two interesting story lines to look at this week. While Wisconsin battles Mother Nature, Fresno State battles the clock. With kickoff set for 9 a.m. Pacific time, the Bulldogs have moved up their meetings to six a.m. and will wake up at five a.m. Friday to travel to Madison and bus immediately to Camp Randall for a walkthrough. This is the beginning of a long road trip for the Bulldogs and it will be interesting to see how they perform so early in the morning.
No matter the time or the health, it figures to be a heck of a match-up. The three meetings between these two clubs have been physical with few style points, especially the last two meetings that the Badgers won by a total of five points. I wouldn't be surprised if this game was just as close.
The books opened at Wisconsin being 8.5 favorites, but as since been taken off the betting line because of the flu, which is ridiculous. Even so, I can't see Wisconsin beating the Dogs by at least nine points when they couldn't beat a young Northern Illinois squad by that same margin. Fresno State is a better club that Northern Illinois than they were a year ago and a better team than a year ago.
That being said, the Bulldogs couldn't get the job done in the biggest home game in their school's history, so how can they win in an environment when the home team has won 31 of the last 34? It'll be close, but I like UW in a squeaker.
Wisconsin 24, Fresno State 23
Straight up: 1-0
Against the Spread: 1-0