Welcome to this week's "All-Out Blitz," where you'll find everything that you need to know about the Badgers' next opponent. The Badgers will wrap up their non-conference slate Saturday against the UTEP Miners at 11 a.m. It's their last chance to really right their ship before the start of Big Ten play, and you can watch the game on ESPN2.
All Out Blitz: UTEP
What you need to know about UTEP
Head coach: Mike Price (9th season @ UTEP), 46-54 (28-36 CUSA) UTEP All-Time Record: 298-473-18 (.389) 2012 Record: 1-2 (0-0 CUSA) Ranking: N/A (AP), N/A (Coaches Poll) All-Time record against Wisconsin: 0-0
2011 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Miners, but they surprised people a bit by finishing with a 5-7 record. UTEP returned just 10 starters last year, but almost snuck into a bowl game after they upset New Mexico State and Tulane on the road. An injury to starting quarterback Nick Lamaison probably cost them a road win at SMU early in the season, but the Miners at least gave some of their younger players a bit of experience. Some of the peripheral numbers were mixed, however. The Miners got a little unlucky in the turnover battle and were -8 for the season, but they were outgained by almost 100 yards in conference play. The Miners also gave up about 30 points per game on the year.
It's kind of a good-news, bad-news season for UTEP. The good news is that they return eight starters on offense, and 13 overall, from a team that nearly made the postseason last year. The bad news is they drew the hardest schedule in the Conference-USA, and that will make it a lot tougher for them to make it back to a bowl game for the first time since 2010, let along match the five wins they posted last year. The Miners are the only team in the conference to play all six of the league's top teams, so while this might be Mike Price's best team in a few years, the results might not be there on the field at the end of the year.
The year got off to a rough start for the Miners, but there were definitely signs of hope for Mike Price's team. The Miners hung with Oklahoma at home for the better part of three quarters before giving up two scores in the fourth quarter, and ended up losing 24-7. They lost 28-10 to Mississippi on the road the next week, but they found some of their footing in a 41-28 win over New Mexico State. The Badgers are their final non-conference opponent of the season before the start of conference play.
Senior quarterback Nick Lamaison will lead the Miners for the second straight season. Lamaison missed the better part of four games last season, and the Miners went 2-2 without him under backup quarterback Carson Meger. Lamaison completed 58 percent of his passes last year, and had 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He's not much of a dual threat- Lamaison rushed 40 times for 39 yards in 2011, so it seems likely that he'll try to stay in the pocket and attack the Badgers deep with their spread offense.
To do that, the Miners will have to rely on their top two wide receivers to stretch the field and put pressure on Wisconsin's defense. Mike Edwards and Jordan Leslie combined for 80 receptions and 1,087 yards in 2011, and they've been Lamaison's two favorite targets so far this season. They've combined for three touchdowns so far this season and they both have long catches of at least thirty yards this season, so the Badger defensive backs will have to respect their deep-play ability.
UTEP's running game is inexperienced, to say the least. Miner running backs rushed just 323 times for 1,804 yards last year, and 90.5 percent of those came from seniors who are no longer in the program. Sophomore Nathan Jeffrey leads the Miners in rushing this season with 177 yards, surpassing last year's total by 11 yards in just one game. Jeffrey hasn't played since week one against Oklahoma, though, so we'll see if he gets back onto the field against the Badgers this week.
The Miners return just five starters on defense, including two sophomores on the defensive line that led the team in sacks last year. Germard Reed and Horace Miller both had four sacks in 2011, and Miller has already added two more this season. Josh Fely is the lone returning linebacker on the weakside, and has 26 tackles through three games this season. The Miners also return half of last year's secondary: senior cornerback Drew Thomas is back and so is strong safety DeShawn Grayson, who had two interceptions last year. It's a deeper unit, but the Miners have given up 239 passing yards per game this season so far.
Matchup to watch: Wisconsin's secondary vs. Utah State's wide receivers
It's no secret that Wisconsin's offense has struggled over the first three games of the season. They're averaging just over 16 points per game so far, and playing UTEP and their 108th-ranked rushing defense might just cure what ails them. But the Badgers have leaned on their defense more than usual this season, and UTEP's spread attack will be a big test for the defensive backs. The Badgers want to limit the big plays they give up, and the Miners are known to take shots at the endzone periodically. If the offense can't get going for the fourth-straight week, the defense will need to contain Edwards and Leslie and avoid getting beat deep by the long ball. If the Miners hit pay dirt on their long passes, the offense will have to stop stalling mid-drive and find a way to hit back.
The pick:Wisconsin 28 UTEP 10
Look, this is the Badgers' last shot to turn things around before the start of Big Ten play. And with Joel Stave under center, how the offense will perform is anyone's guess. Could he step up and spark the team into something resembling their old juggernaut? Sure. There's still talent on this team somewhere. But it's not entirely likely, either. In all likelihood the coaching staff will try to keep the game plan simple for Stave, and Montee Ball will get a lot of carries again. The offensive line is still an enigma, and they still haven't found a reliable pass catcher behind Jared Abbrederis. But they should still beat UTEP, especially at home.
Make no mistake; UTEP is not a good team. If the Badgers had played the Miners sometime over the last two seasons, we'd be talking about a 40-point spread and wondering how the backups would look in the fourth quarter. But through three games this year, those days seem like a distant memory. A lot of caveats have been brought up after each game this season: Northern Iowa is a great FCS team, Oregon State has upset several teams at home before, and Utah State was able to beat Utah for the first time in 12 years. But in my mind, there's no real excuse for UTEP beating the spread on Saturday.
Growing pains are inevitable with Stave at quarterback, but a road game with Nebraska is looming on the schedule. The clock is ticking, and we'll find out Saturday if the Badgers have enough in them to handle the Miners and head into Big Ten play with some optimism.
The point after:
Camp Randall Stadium's listed capacity is 80,321 people. UTEP has played four times in front of a crowd of at least 80,000, and eight times total in front of at least 70,000 people. The Miners are 0-8 in those games.