In the season opener, Wisconsin proved the old adjective true that while offense may score points, it's the defense that gives it the chance to win championships.
With the Vegas odds makers projecting an over-under of nine wins, No.12 Wisconsin took the first step in reaching that mark by its defense locking down the Running Rebels offense, allowing just 217 yards of total offense in a 41-21 season-opening victory in front of 31,107 fans at Sam Boyd Stadium.
"Defense started out strong," junior defensive end J.J. Watt said. "The first half was good to us, a couple blemished in the second half but overall, it was a solid performance."
While the offense ransacked the record books last season, UW's defense went about its business in the run defense and sack department, leading the conference in both categories. With UNLV (0-1) finishing 86th nationally in rushing offense (126.8 per game), the Badgers broke in five new full-time starters by registering two sacks, five pass breakups and a fumble that swung the momentum for good in favor of UW.
UW's defense gave up only 12 total yards in the first half, but the Badgers were only up 17-14 because of two costly turnovers by the offense that led to 14 UNLV points. Watt helped to erase those problems when his tackle in the flat on UNLV running back Michael Johnson caused the football to come loose and into the hands of junior safety Aaron Henry, who scampered 20 yards for the tally.
"Before we went (into halftime), they (UNLV) jumped us," Henry said. "We received our adversity early in the game … and I think our players stepped up and rose to the occasion."
Wisconsin scored the next 24 points, rolling up 475 yards of total offense in the process to give comfort into a game that was once a nail biter.
"One thing we can't simulate during practice is adversity," Head Coach Bret Bielema said. "Things are going well, things are on the roll and all of a sudden you have adversity either individually or as a unit. At halftime, we are sitting in a ballgame where we felt pretty dominate, but two plays take away from that affect. It just explained to our guys that every play matters. I really like their response in the second half."
Wisconsin's offense did have plenty of highlights, most of them courtesy of junior running back John Clay. A Heisman candidate and the 2010 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Clay looked sharp during his limited reps, carrying the ball 17 times for 123 yards and two scores.
With Clay still nursing his sore ankles, his backup crew got plenty of work, and were impressive doing so. Sophomore Montee Ball added 79 yards and two scores while true freshman James White added 59 yards.
"We're out there to support each other," Clay said. "If I need a break, Montee and James are more than able to step in and take the load. If they need a break, I am right there for them, too."
Wisconsin's first drive encapsulated everything that was good about the Badgers last season and why many expect their offense to be the strength once again.
In orchestrating Wisconsin's 14-play opening scoring drive, senior quarterback Scott Tolzien and company stuck to a ground game that led the conference in yards per game a year ago, earning 64 yards on the ground, including 39 and the touchdown from Heisman-candidate Clay.
When the offense faced two third-and-fives, Tolzien found David Gilreath for 11 and Lance Kendricks for five to move the sticks, proving the group that converted 47.5 percent on third down a year ago (third-best in school history) can still get the job done.
After leading the country in time of possession, UW was well on its way to achieving that for the third time in the last four years, as its opening drive ate up more than 7 minutes, 30 seconds on the clock.
"It was a good way to start," Tolzien said, "but we need to maintain that and not shoot ourselves in the foot."
While the offense managed to have its way with the Running Rebels defense, it also got the reminder of how crippling turnovers can be.
After Ball found the endzone to increase the lead to 14-7, the wheels started to come off for the offense. On the first play of UW's third drive, a slant pass was read perfectly by UNLV defensive back Will Chandler, who intercepted Tolzien and went untouched for a 19-yard return.
After UW tacked on a field goal to make it 17-7, Wisconsin was on the verge of increasing that lead until junior Nick Toon was stripped on a third-down completion inside the 10-yard line. There again was Chandler, who returned the ball 82 yards down to the UW 16, setting up a touchdown pass on the next play.
That caused a little ire to be thrown in the faces of the UW players by Bielema and Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst.
"It was well deserved," Tolzien said. "You can't beat yourself, plain and simple, because it can end up biting you in the tail."
Defensive Coordinator Dave Doeren message to the defense was different: keep doing what you are doing.
"The feeling coming out at halftime was to play one play at a time," Watt said. "We never get too high. We never get too low. That is our motto. We definitely did that."
More importantly, the Badgers found out it could handle adversity. Whether it be triple digits at kickoff, ill-advised decisions or unforced penalties, Wisconsin will be 1-0 when it heads to the film room Sunday.
"We couldn't ask for better learning," Bielema said. "Nothing is more important than today. Tomorrow when we practice, there's nothing more important than Sunday's preparation. That will get us to next Saturday. To go through the way we did, have it be 17-14 at the half is just going to be incredible teaching."