It definitely won't rank as Scott Tolzien's finest performance in a Wisconsin uniform, but the senior signal caller did do what he had to do in order to get his 11th career win. Tolzien was his usual efficient self, completing 15-of-20 passes for 197 yards, but was kicking himself over a poorly-throw pass in the second quarter that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
At that point, UNLV's offense had minus-11 yards after two series, but now was right back in the game.
Tolzien saw the Rebels were running a two-one-one coverage on Toon, meaning his rules were to look elsewhere. Admitting to going against the grain and his base rules, the results speak for itself.
"It was one of those I thought I could stick it in there," he said. "Plain and simple that is something I've got to learn from and not let it happen again."
To Tolzien's credit, he was basically error free the rest of the game, but plays like that (going against his keys) can't happen against the better teams.
"Good teams don't (bite themselves)," Tolzien added. "That will end up biting you in the tail if you let that happen."
Hard to argue with the success John Clay, Montee Ball and James White had against one of the worst rush defenses in the country last season. The trio racked up 261 yards and all four touchdowns against the Running Rebels, highlighted by Clay's performance. In his first game on the field since his double ankle surgeries, Clay made the most of his limited reps, rushing for 123 yards, two scores and averaging 7.2 yards per carry. It was Clay's 13th career 100-yard rushing game, impressive considering he needed an IV Friday to deal with an illness.
White became the first true freshman running back to get carries in the opener since Zach Brown in 2007. As a comparison, Ron Dayne had nine carries for 53 yards and a touchdown in his first game as a true freshman in 1996, not that we're putting any pressure on the kid or anything.
"We feel the rotation we have that all three of us are going to be fresh," Ball said. "We love it."
Special kudos to lineman Ryan Groy, who looked solid in his reps at fullback.
There will be better days for the UW receiver corps but with UNLV being so poor against the run, passing a lot wasn't in the cards. David Gilreath looked very good running routes after suffering a concussion in the latter weeks of camp, catching four catches for a team-high 68 yards. Gilreath also had the catch of the night, catching a Tolzien strike between two defenders at the UNLV one that set up a Montee Ball touchdown.
Nick Toon also had four catches, but his costly fumble inside the 10-yard line but UW's defense in an impossible position and led to a score.
"As a head coach you see things," Head Coach Bret Bielema said. "On the play before where he lost some yardage he was real careless with the ball. I said something right there. The next time he got the ball was the fumble. We have to see it as coaches and make the players believe it."
Like Tolzien's interception, that's something that can't happen. Lance Kendricks has a big third-down catch on UW's first drive, but that five-yard pass was his only reception of the game. White had three catches for 37 yards, proving that if he isn't a factor running the ball, he'll be a factor catching it out of the backfield.
A Wisconsin no-name defensive line does it again, almost. The Badgers new-look eight-man rotation did a solid job providing pressure on UNLV's two quarterbacks and stifling the running game until the final drive. On that drive, Omar Clayton's 17 rushing yards put UNLV over the 100-yard rushing mark, breaking a streak of 10 straight games without an opponent rushing for 100 yards or more.
It was a moot point. J.J. Watt had four tackles, three pass breakups and a key forced fumble that led to Aaron Henry scooping and scoring. Sophomore David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu had a solid game at the opposite defensive end spot, registering four tackles and two pass breakups/one sack, respectively.
"It's just something that comes with experience," Watt said of blocking passes. "When we see the quarterback's eyes and we see him cock his arm, we know it's time to put our hands up."
Although Mike Taylor went through warm-ups, the sophomore linebacker was held out for another week, giving senior Blake Sorensen the start. UW's top three tacklers were all linebackers. Culmer St. Jean led the team with seven tackles, Chris Borland was his usual monster self with five tackles, two TFLs and one sack while Sorensen added five tackles.
The linebackers did most of their damage in the ‘Badger' package (3-3-5), something fans should see plenty of Saturday.
Other than the 16-yard touchdown pass allowed after the Toon fumble, UW's three-man cornerback rotation played solidly when the game was close. Niles Brinkley and Antonio Fenelus did a good job with the No.1 unit, limiting the Rebels to only 10-of-26 passing for 105 yards. The secondary did however give up two passing touchdowns.
Henry second-career touchdown on a 20-yard fumble recovery early in the third quarter was a big momentum shift, but his foolish 15-yard facemask penalty in the first quarter could have easily been avoided.
"I've got to be there … and help make the play," Valai said. "It's as simple as that to help."
With two field goals, Phillip Welch has 39 made kicks in his career, tying Mike Allen for fourth place on the career field goal list. With his 11 points, he moved into seventh place on UW's career scoring list (208). His field goal attempts were good, but his directional kicks were not, kicking one out of bounds that led to good UNLV field position. Still, his directional kicks, when hit consistently, are going to give the kickoff return unit a big boost.
After Bielema commented that James White was going to take kickoffs, he called an audible and had Gilreath out there for all punts and kickoffs. Gilreath had one punt return for two yards and making seven fair catches while returning two kickoffs for 43 with a long of 23.
Brad Nortman had five punts for 226 yards, including a 70-yard boot, and a touchback.