MADISON, Wis. - The lights will shine bright on Bulldog Stadium Saturday night as UW serves as the first Big 10 team ever to travel to Fresno State. The Badgers have yet to be truly tested as they have run away with blowout wins in their first two contests. The Bulldogs also dominated the second half of their meeting with Rutgers en route to a 24-7 win.
The following is a breakdown of the UW-Fresno State game:
When the Badgers have the ball:
In week one, the running backs put on a show rushing for more than 400 yards combined. Against Marshall, quarterback Allan Evridge flashed his abilities as a passer by racking up more than 300 yards through the air. UW's offensive prowess must make it difficult for Fresno State to prepare.
Do the Bulldogs load up the box and try to slow the Badger's three-headed rushing attack of P.J. Hill, Zach Brown and John Clay? Or do they decide to drop back and try to make plays in the secondary by baiting Evridge into some difficult throws?
Although Fresno State's starting defensive line weighs 43 pounds less on average than UW's offensive line, their main focus should be on slowing the run attack. The Bulldog's trio of sophomore linebackers Chris Carter, Ben Jacobs and Nico Herron all possess great size and should play a major role in stuffing the run.
However, if FSU allows the running game to get started, they could be in for a long night. UW's all-everything tight end Travis Beckum will make his 2008 debut Saturday night, and he already possesses the talent to stretch a defense. If the running game is working look for his first game to be a big one, especially since nearly half of Evridge's completions have gone to his tight ends thus far.
The Badger's running game usually gets most of the publicity, but their tight end depth and talent is somewhat comparable. Tight end Garrett Graham leads the team in receptions and Lance Kendricks leads the team in receiving yards. This position will pose problems for the Bulldogs linebackers when they drop into coverage.
Finally, UW's wide receivers have had a quiet first two weeks. Look for them to get involved in the action this weekend as well. I'm also not sure the Badger's have completely opened their playbook to this point in the season, mostly because they have not had to.
When Fresno State has the ball:
Tom Brandstater has experience. 2008 is his third year under center as the Bulldog's starting quarterback and he is considered one of the WAC's best. So far in the season, the Badger's have had difficulties containing wide receivers, and with experience at the quarterback position and an accurate arm, this may be the week UW's secondary is exposed.
Going on the road to a hostile environment, against a ranked opponent, it will be extremely critical for the Badger defense to get off the field, especially early. The young secondary did haul in three interceptions a week ago against Marshall, but the Thundering Herd's Darius Passmore had a big day. Frankly, if Fresno's offense gets out to a fast start, the Badger's will find themselves in an uphill battle.
At running back, the Bulldog's also have talented running backs, especially in sophomore Ryan Mathews. Against Rutgers, he racked up 163 yards on the ground and found the end zone three times. So far in the season, UW's defensive line has remained stout and the linebackers have impressed, but Mathews is better than what they've seen thus far.
With the return of Jonathan Casillas the cardinal and white defense will almost be back to full strength, but tackling, as always, will be key. Guarding one of the WAC's best tight ends in Bear Pascoe, will also provide a challenge for the Badger defense.
All in all, how this game plays out will certainly depend on UW's ability to slow the run and continued improvement in the secondary.
ADVANTAGE: Slight edge goes to Fresno State. Playing at home going against a young, potentially rattled Badger secondary, gives the Bulldogs an advantage.
Over the first two weeks of the season, the Badgers have seen their share of talented return men. This week is no different as A.J. Jefferson will field the ball for the Bulldogs. In 2007, he led all of college football in kickoff return yardage. Containing him will be essential.
Since Pat Hill took over as head coach, Fresno State has blocked over 70 punts and kicks. With true freshman punter Brad Nortman experiencing his first road game, it will be interesting to see how he handles the Bulldogs pressure.
If this game is close, both teams' place kickers are redshirt freshmen seeing their first action. A late game field goal situation is no guarantee for either team.
There is no doubt this is one of the Badger's toughest games in 2008. A slow start against Fresno State, similar to that against Marshall, translates to a Badger loss. With a young secondary, senior leadership will be one of the most important aspects of the game.
UW will be able to run the ball, thus setting up openings in the pass game. But Fresno, on the heels of their ruckus crowd and electric home atmosphere will be able to stay with the Badgers. The game will likely come down to special teams play both in terms of field position and scoring. Don't count out a late field goal attempt where anything can happen with young kickers.
In a back and forth game, the Badger's running game will wear down the Bulldogs front seven and a late touchdown will seal the Badgers win, 24-17.
2-0 overall, 0-2 versus the spread. UW is a 1.5 point favorite.
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