Badgers/Bulldogs Preview: 2009 Edition

Who: Fresno State Bulldogs @ Wisconsin Badgers.
Where: Camp Randall Stadium, ESPN
When: Saturday, September 13, 11 AM CST

It appeared at first to be a joke.

When word spread early in the week that a massive flu outbreak that affected as many as 45 players had hit the Wisconsin Badgers football team, the scenario seemed right out of a bad college movie: The underdog school’s football team prevails against a national powerhouse thanks to a timely flu epidemic. (Substitute “venereal disease” for “flu” and I think I’ve seen that movie late at night on Cinemax.)

Fortunately for Badger fans, news later in the week was much more positive, as only a few players missed Wednesday’s practice and a brief ban imposed on players from talking to the media was quickly lifted.

It appears, therefore, that Saturday’s non-conference game at home against Fresno State should be decided by the play on the field and not by who needed to be held out of the game.

If it seems that the Badgers and Bulldogs just met, it’s because they did: On September 13, 2008, Wisconsin beat Fresno State 13-10 in what was a highly-touted non-conference game at Bulldog Stadium. Both teams were ranked, and when Wisconsin prevailed, their ranking jumped from #10 to #5, and there was much premature talk about the Badgers in a BCS game.

The following week, the Badgers embarked on a four-game losing streak, and the talk began to revolve more around Bret Bielema losing his job. That, too, proved to be premature.

This year, the Badger/Bulldog game is no doubt less compelling on a national scale, but it’s no less intriguing of a match up — perhaps more so, considering that last year, neither team was as good as advertised, but this year, both teams might be undervalued.

Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines to watch in this game:

1. Are they who we thought they were? Most preseason pundits figured that with a new starter at quarterback and proven commodities John Clay and Zach Brown running the football, the 2009 Badgers offensive attack would be, in the words of San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Singletary, one that goes out and “hits people in the mouth.”

Instead, the Badgers came out in the opener against Northern Illinois looking like the 1999 St. Louis Rams, as Scott Tolzien and Isaac Anderson hooked up for a 80-yard touchdown catch on Wisconsin’s first offensive play. Tolzien went on to establish a Wisconsin record for passing yards (257) by a first-time starting quarterback.

The downside to this surprising passing proficiency was the fact that Clay and Brown only gained a total of 94 yards on 29 carries for a measly 3.2 yards per carry. But with Northern Illinois stacking the box, Tolzien showed he could take what the opposing defense gave him.

Fresno State, which pitched a 51-0 shutout against UC-Davis in week one, will likely make Tolzien prove that he can do it again. Can he?

2. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Despite Tolzien’s numbers, the Badgers opening win was anything but convincing. What loomed large in the game ultimately coming down to a Badger defensive stop on a fourth-and-three with just over a minute remaining? Turnovers.

Tolzien threw two costly picks in his debut; surely the biggest was the one he tossed in the fourth quarter that led to the second of Northern Illinois’s fourth-quarter touchdowns. But don’t overlook the pick in the second quarter. Already up 14-6, the Badgers had just recovered a Northern Illinois fumble and suddenly had the ball deep in NIU territory. A score in all likelihood would have made it a commanding 21-6 lead at the half. Instead Tolzien gave it right back on the very next play, keeping NIU in the game.

Fresno State has a more opportunistic defense than Northern Illinois, scoring a 94-yard interception return in its blowout win against UC Davis. Bucky had better protect the ball better against the Bulldogs.

3. Defense? Which Badger defense will show up against Fresno State? Will it be the defense that over the first three periods against NIU allowed just six points and one significant drive? Or will it be the defense that (granted with zero help from the offense) allowed 127 yards and two touchdowns in the final period alone?

Fresno State’s offense put up some scary numbers against UC-Davis: 511 total yards, 310 rushing yards, 6.0 yards per carry. Granted, UC-Davis’s defense shouldn’t compare to Wisconsin’s, but it’s clear that Fresno State has some weapons, particularly in the backfield. This will be a challenging early-season test for the Badgers’ defensive unit.

With Tolzien quickly proving to be miles better than Allan Evridge, who started at quarterback for Wisconsin the last time these teams met, and with the Bulldogs’ loaded running back corps, Saturday’s game could be the mirror image of last year’s defensive struggle. But I doubt it.

Predicted final: Wisconsin 27, Fresno State 17.


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