MADISON, Wis. – New UNLV coach Bobby Hauck laughed before answering the question of just exactly how a team might stop No. 12 Wisconsin's power running attack featuring junior standout John Clay.
"John Clay, their running back, was league MVP on offense, they've got All-Americans on the left side of their offensive line," Hauck said. "I don't think shutting Wisconsin down in terms of their run game really ... "
Is realistic? Possible? Feasible?
"We watched all of their film from a year ago and nobody stops them much," the coach finally said. "That being said, we're going to try."
It's a stiff first test on Saturday night for the former Montana coach who inherited one of the worst run defenses in the country, one that gave up 220.6 yards per game a year ago. Hauck said when he walked into his first team meeting he asked, "Where are all the big guys?"
They'll be lining up across from the Rebels.
Clay will run behind an offensive line that averages 323 pounds and includes standout left tackle Gabe Carimi and left guard John Moffitt.
"One thing you'll never accuse our offense of is being cute," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "We can bypass that one pretty quickly."
Clay himself might be the biggest question mark, since he had had both ankles surgically repaired in the offseason. If the 255-pound back slows down, sophomore Montee Ball and freshman James White will get carries, too. Clay hasn't had more than a dozen carries in the Badgers' scrimmages and acknowledges it takes some more time to prepare with his ankles.
"There's a little bit (of pain), just the beginning, just getting my ankles warmed up and ready to run," he said. "I just want to prove to everybody and show everybody that I'm ready."
Hauck said the game can't be a measuring stick for how far their defense has come in camp because Wisconsin's running game is elite. Hauck is bringing his own tough style to UNLV after taking Montana to three FCS championship appearances in seven years. UNLV hasn't had a winning record or been to a bowl game since 2000.
"The dangerous thing about teams getting new coaches is it can be a breath of fresh air," Moffitt said. "They can be renewed and it could be tough. You can't take it lightly — it's their first game, a home game, a big game."
Hauck made his first big decision by giving the starting quarterback nod to Mike Clausen over Omar Clayton, though he expects both will play. Clausen had primarily been the backup to Clayton each of the previous two years.
Still, he's realistic about the few advantages his Rebels will have.
"We don't have to travel," he quipped.
Still, Wisconsin has a history of tough and strange games in Las Vegas, losing in 1987. The Badgers won a close game in 2007 and had the lights go out at Sam Boyd Stadium in a 27-7 win in 2002 that was called off midway through the fourth quarter.
Daytime temperatures are expected to be around 105 degrees, with the lower 80s expected for the evening kickoff. Wisconsin turned up the thermostat in their indoor practice facility during a practice this week, but it felt more like a steam room at a gym than searing desert heat.
"You can't prepare for it, we've just got to go in and be mentally ready," Clay said.
While the city is known as a place where your fortunes can change in an instant, Bielema will make sure his Badgers stay focused on the game.
He's allowing the players a short, guided tour of the Strip — about 45 minutes — before heading to the team hotel and staying put. Former coach Barry Alvarez let one of his teams eat at a casino buffet on one of the previous trips there.
"I'm not that bold," Bielema said.
Moffitt is more interested in relaxing in his room following the long plane flight. He's going to skip the foray into Las Vegas, where he knows what can happen if one lingers too long.
"It's a quick tour, then back to reality," he said. "I definitely want to experience Vegas at some point in my life — after college. I'll probably end up broke."