Joel Stave is starting. Jared Abbrederis is back. A trip to Nebraska looms next week.
Those first two facts have generated some solid excitement -- or trepidation, if you're a Danny O'Brien guy -- over the course of this week. Heck, we're ready to get it on. We're (basically) out of the polls, Montee Ball is out of the Heisman Trophy race and everyone else in college football has devoted their sliver of Big Ten attention toward... Ohio State? Northwestern? Purdue?
Damn, these are dire times.
But in getting back to Nebraska, Saturday's game vs. UTEP provides a fascinating opportunity for evaluation with the Big Ten opener next on the docket. The Huskers undoubtedly remember last year's beatdown at Camp Randall in their first-ever conference game, and they're also hurting from a 2-1 start to the season. They'll be ready to stomp Wisconsin back into the submission felt after the Week 2 loss to Oregon State, and heck, they still want to prove Taylor Martinez can throw the football!
So with one eye on Nebraska and the other on making sure UTEP doesn't sneak in and pull a fast one on us, we're spending this week's "XX Thoughts From The Other Side" with SB Nation's fine UTEP blog, Miner Rush. Yes, we're back to seven questions. Hoo boy, buckle up.
1. B5Q: How has UTEPs 1-2 start to the season aligned with preseason expectations?
MR: The 1-2 start is almost exactly what most Miner fans expected heading into the season. Now, while we didn't expect to pick up wins against Oklahoma or at Ole Miss, it was disappointing that we were unable to capitalize on the opportunities that we had, in order to pick at least one of those games.
2. B5Q: Facing Oklahoma in Week 1 is a tough task for any program, no doubt. Were Miners fans able to glean anything from that 24-7 loss?
MR: As far as the Oklahoma game goes, there were definitely a couple of things that we were able to take away from it. First, our running back, sophomore Nathan Jeffery, proved that the preseason hype about him was warranted as he rushed for 177 yards on 21 carries, against what was supposed to be one of the better defenses in the Big 12. He also added a special teams touchdown, the only score of the game for us.
Also, we found out that our defense was for real. Granted, we've had some issues giving up the big play, as we did 1 or 2 times against OU. But, that unit, without their "best" linebacker, held a team that is supposed to be a national title contender, with a Heisman favorite quarterback to 10 points through 3 and a half quarters. They'll be up for the task, no matter who we're playing.
3. B5Q: On offense, what is the biggest story for UTEP entering this Wisconsin game?
MR: Well, Nathan Jeffery likely would have been the biggest story, but he actually strained his groin in that game against Oklahoma, missed the majority of the 4th quarter, and has missed the two games since. With him out though, it gave senior quarterback Nick Lamaison the opportunity to get the passing game going.
After a poor 6-23 effort that resulted in 39 yards and no scores in week 1, he has progressively gotten better over the last two weeks. Against Ole Miss he went 21-33 for 210 yards and 1 touchdown, and then this past week he went 21-32 for 300 and 4 touchdowns. Now, coming into the season, we expected that this team would be able to move to the ball through the air, so its no surprise, but it is nice to finally have that part of our offense clicking, heading into such a big game.
4. B5Q: And on defense?
MR: I would say that the biggest story on defense is our depth, but for multiple reasons. First, as mentioned before, we were without our top returning linebacker for the first couple weeks of the season. When you're missing your starting middle linebacker you'd probably expect quite the fall off with a backup. But, junior A.J. Ropati has stepped in and produced 22 stops already, including 11 this past weekend.
Now, the other side of the coin is that in other areas depth is somewhat of an issue. The secondary, while still fresh with the starters, has already seen a couple of guys miss time with injuries, especially at corner. Reserve corner Adrian James will be out with a high ankle sprain, and fellow reserve corner Traun Roberson has had some knee issues as well. We'll need that unit to be healthy, not just for this game, but for the rest of the season if we're expecting to have a successful one.
5. B5Q: In your mind, how do Wisconsin and UTEP match up, especially given the struggles each team has had this year?
MR: I think the two teams actually match up very well. I know that for the Badgers, the offense hasn't exactly been where most expected. From what I hear there's a bit of a quarterback controversy, and Montee Ball hasn't exactly been the force that he was a year ago. Because of that, a ton of pressure has been put on the defense to step up their play. So far, it seems like they've answered the call.
The Miners were in a similar boat for the first two weeks of the season. The offense just wasn't clicking, and a lot of pressure was put on the defense to keep us in games. However, if this last game was any indicator as to how we can expect this team to play, then we just might have found ourselves. Even so, the advantage that we gain there, if any, is likely wiped away by the simple fact that this game is being played at Camp Randall. Should be a competitive one.
6. B5Q: As much as you know about the Badgers -- and I don't think I could blame an out-of-market college football fan for keeping his eyes off the ugly football of the first three weeks here -- where can the Miners give them trouble?
MR: I haven't really been able to actually watch any Wisconsin games, but I keep up with most college football scores throughout the day, and boxscores at the end of the day, so I've seen what has happened over the opening weeks of the season. The one thing that I have heard is that much like the Miners, the Badgers have had issues giving up the big play every now and then. We were able to capitalize on that against New Mexico State over the weekend, and while they surely aren't a Big 10 defense, I'm hoping that we are able to do the same this week. We're going to need a big play every now and then, a momentum swinger, if we want to even give ourselves an opportunity to win this one.
7. B5Q: Lastly, this is a question we usually ask at the tail end of our Q&As -- should Wisconsin fans expect a noticeable contingent of UTEP fans? Saturday's game has an early 11:00 a.m. CT start, but sometimes that only fosters a great game day atmosphere at Camp Randall.
MR: I don't anticipate there being a real big UTEP contingent there in Madison. While we'll likely have a couple hundred Miner faithful cheering on the team, the mere fact that we are separated by about 1,500 miles will likely keep many fans watching from the comfort of their couches. I hope we get some good support, but I just don't expect it.
You can follow Miner Rush on Twitter @sbnminerrush. As always, Bucky's 5th Quarter is @B5Q. Keep it here the rest of the week for more previews and the GameThread on Saturday.