MADISON - Three weeks ago, the Badgers offensive line featured three players that had never started a game in their collegiate careers. Flash forward to the present and the Badgers enter their Big Ten opener with eight available linemen that have made at least one college start.
It couldn't come at a better time for Wisconsin, as the Badgers will be fully tested by the front seven of Michigan State this Saturday at Camp Randall, a unit that is allowing an average 87.0 rushing yards per game, fourth in the Big Ten, and 2.8 yards per carry.
"This is the stiffest competition we've seen defensive line wise to date,' Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said Thursday. "This will be an important week for us."
With experience an important component to the success of Wisconsin's run game and protecting junior quarterback Scott Tolzien, the Wisconsin coaches have decided to make over its offensive line.
According to Bielema, John Moffitt will start at left guard in place of Jake Bscherer, Peter Konz will start at center for the second-straight week and Kevin Zeitler will continue to man the post at right guard. The tackles – LT Gabe Carimi and RT Josh Oglesby – remain unchanged.
Moffitt, who started six games at left guard as a redshirt freshman in 2007, looks to be at left guard unless something drastic happens. Moffitt was moved to center last season based out of need, as Wisconsin didn't have a viable replacement for Marcus Coleman at the beginning of 2008.
With the solid play of Konz and Travis Frederick through the first three games, especially with no quarterback-exchange issues, and Bscherer struggling to make the transition from tackle to guard, the Badgers made the switch, although Moffitt, who worked as the second-string center all week, would switch in if there was a problem.
"We like the way that when he was at center, he could pull and really do some things with movement," Bielema said. "We love to move those guards and do certain things. We felt John might be better suited for that position overall."
"Pete's size and his athleticism … bottom line, he's 6-foot-6, 300 pounds and can move. We don't pull the center as much as we do the guard, but they are moving quite a bit out there on the perimeters."
Bill Nagy, who had 29 reps last week in his first action since recovering from his ankle injury, practiced Tuesday, but slightly re-aggravated the issue Wednesday and didn't fully practice Thursday. Frederick is full-go after missing last week's game with an ankle injury and Bscherer will see time at both left and right guard.
"I don't John (Moffitt) going into his first game is ready to take 70 snaps in a Big Ten football game," Bielema said. "Jake's had a good week of practice. The reason we are doing it is to get a little bit more experience and mobility."
Despite sophomore running back John Clay's three-fumble performance last Saturday against Wofford and junior running back Zach Brown listed first on the depth chart UW released on Monday, Bielema hasn't made a firm decision on who will be the first back in the game Saturday.
"To be quite honest, we'll have a discussion tomorrow on the running backs about who will start between Zach Brown and John Clay," Bielema said. "Both have done a good job all week and put themselves into the discussion on Saturday."
In his first start of his career, Clay averaged 5.8 yards on his 12 carries, but was benched twice, once for the entire second quarter and the other for most of the second half, when his fumbling became a problem.
"I want to see how he plays … not how he earns my trust," Bielema said. "The previous 15 games, he only had four fumbles. I haven't been alarmed by him with ball security in the past. Obviously, something was off Saturday and we addressed that."
Brown averaged 5.2 yards per carry against Wofford and also lost a fumble, but responded by rushing nine times for 51 yards and two touchdowns after the turnover. Redshirt freshman Erik Smith also received increased playing time, rushing 10 times for 54 yards and a touchdown.
All three are expected to see playing time this week.
Appleton Healthy, Ball on the Fence
Originally planning to get Ball some carried in the Fresno State game, Bielema cited how the pace of the game forced the coaching staff to go with more seasoned runners while last week, Ball was the dealing with the death of his grandfather.
While he still has his redshirt available to him, Bielema and his staff are still considering playing him, especially since he had a good week of practice.
"He's been kind of a work-in-progress and I want to see where he is at," Bielema said. "I like that the way he has prepared … and brought to the table."
The same goes with Appleton, who is finally 100 percent healthy and went through a full week of practice sine tweaking his hamstring during fall camp. Although Appleton has played, the Badgers haven't utilized him as much as Bielema would have like … until now.
"We can design some things to get him specifically fit into," Bielema said. "The one thing you saw during fall camp is Kraig can catch the ball and he's big. You like the element he brings to the lineup for us, especially the redzone."
Put Down the Beer and Get Inside!
After the student section was mostly packed at kickoff the first two games, the empty sight last weekend has prompted Bielema to send out the message.
Bielema plans to send out a memo to the students and general fans about the Badgers wanting to start fast and have momentum from the beginning of the game. Citing the instance where a student missed the 80-yard Isaac Anderson touchdown if he/she was late to the Northern Illinois game, Bielema wants the energy from the moment the Badgers run out of the tunnel, getting them fired up and making it harder on the opponent.
"They are the greatest fans we got," Bielema said. "We want to get the fans in the stadium as soon as we can to get an effect. I saw comments from Michigan State about how difficult it is to play in Camp Randall. We want that from the beginning to the end.
"We got a high ACT score to get in here, they are very creative and our kids feed off that. If we are only at 3,000 (fans) when 11,000 need to be in there, it doesn't have that good of an effect. I really hope students get in there."
Extra Points: Louis Nzegwu (shoulder), Brendan Kelly (groin) and J.J. Watt (ankle) practices all week and are cleared for Saturday … Bielema did not commit to icing senior kicker Brett Swenson this weekend. As some may remember, Bielema called a timeout at the end of last year's game to try to ice Swenson on his field goal attempt. After making his kick which he made to send UW to a crushing defeat, Swenson thanked Bielema in the media for calling the time out and helping him relax and focus.