Andy Manis / AP
Friday, Sept. 2, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
MADISON, Wis. — Following last year's 41-21 season-opening loss to Wisconsin, the look on UNLV coach Bobby Hauck's face and the words out of his mouth gave the impression that his team was in for a long ride.
This time around, after a 51-17 loss in Madison, Wis., in what was likely the final game the two sides will ever play, the vibe he gave off couldn't have been any different.
Yes, the Rebels have an exciting, young offense that could throw up some big numbers in 2011. Yes, the defense has a long, long way to go before completely rehabbing its recent image. In all, it's far from being a doom-and-gloom situation as UNLV prepares for next Saturday's game at Washington State.
"We weren't ready to come in here and beat a Top-10 team, obviously," Hauck said in a lighthearted post-game press conference. "But, with that said, we're going to be all right."
The first half at a raucous Camp Randall Stadium went pretty much how many thought it would. Wisconsin's massive offensive line blew UNLV's front seven off of the ball snap after snap and racked up long gain after long gain. Veteran backs Montee Ball and James White ripped off sizable runs with apparent ease and highly-touted North Carolina State transfer Russell Wilson was nothing short of brilliant in his Wisconsin debut.
On the other side, UNLV moved the ball well before the half, but its youth and inexperience showed in front of a wild crowd of 77,085 once the Rebels got into the red zone. Three trips inside the Badgers' 20-yard line in the first half netted three total points.
What the first half told us was that, as Hauck and athletic director Jim Livengood have pointed out of late, UNLV right now has no business trying to play against teams like Wisconsin. What the second half told us was that this season likely won't play out in the same unsightly manner that Hauck's first campaign did after opening up against the Badgers.
Wisconsin's starting units played until late in the third quarter, and UNLV was able to get some nice drives under its belts and some parting shots through the Badgers' guard after the intermission.
Sophomore quarterback Caleb Herring's first career start was pretty strong, all things considered. He held onto the ball too long a couple of times, but showed nice poise in the pocket. He led two touchdown drives in the second half, finishing the game with 146 yards and two TD tosses off of 18-of-27 passing. He also ran for 29 yards.
It also appears that UNLV will be able to run the ball much more effectively this season, too. UNLV played much of the game with three freshmen — left tackle Brett Boyko, right tackle Cameron Jefferson and center Robert Waterman — on the offensive line. Behind the re-tooled unit, sophomores Bradley Randle and Tim Cornett combined for 124 yards on 26 carries.
"We did a lot of things well on offense — We moved the ball well, we have to finish when it counts down in the red zone," Herring said. "You're never going to come out of a loss like that and be at all satisfied with it, but as a young team, we did some good things in this environment."
The defense, though, is likely to get much of the focus as the season wears on, and it likely all won't be for the right reasons.
Wisconsin piled up 499 yards of total offense, with 241 of those coming on the ground. The Badgers averaged a whopping 6.3 yards per carry.
"Their front seven on offense, we just couldn't get off of them," Hauck said. "Great job by them, and we need to get better, obviously."
UNLV's linebackers got lost more than a couple of times in coverage, and the secondary looked pretty shaky. That led to several big plays involving both Wilson's right arm and his shifty legs. His stellar night included 255 yards through the air on only 10 completions. He threw for two touchdowns and ran another in from 46 yards out late in the first half.
Those at home who stuck around to watch the entire thing transpire were likely left with this conclusion: UNLV will be a much more entertaining offensive team to watch this season, but defensively, the transition under Hauck and his staff isn't nearly as close to completion.
The Rebels also got out of Camp Randall in good general health, which makes having moved the game from Saturday to Thursday even more of a bright idea in hindsight. Part of the motivation behind the move was that it would give UNLV two extra days to prepare for next Saturday's tilt in Pullman, Wash. Hauck said the team will go full pads and practice at Rebel Park Saturday afternoon.
So, all in all, it could have been much, much worse.
"We played a lot of young guys, got a lot of young guys into this atmosphere," Randle said. "I stuck around for a reason, everybody else stuck around for a reason. The future is still bright."