The No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers will open their 2013 season at Camp Randall Stadium against the visiting Massachusetts Minutemen.
The Badgers made their third straight Rose Bowl appearance last year, and for the third time in as many tries they lost the Granddaddy of Them All. They finished with an 8-5 mark, as all five losses came by one touchdown or less, including a 20-14 setback to seventh-ranked Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The team played that game without former head coach Brett Bielema, who announced on Dec. 4 that he was leaving Wisconsin for the vacant position at Arkansas.
Gary Andersen is now the man with the whistle in Madison, where his previous team, the Utah State Aggies, gave the Badgers a run for their money in a mid- September matchup.
"There's going to be differences when you take over a program. It's important to put your own stamp on it," Andersen said at Big Ten Media Day.
Massachusetts stepped up to the Football Bowl Subdivision last season and struggled to a 1-11 finish. First-year coach Charley Molnar certainly had his work cut out for him in taking over a team that had gone 16-17 in its final three years at the FCS level. The Minutemen were shut out three times, and all but one of their losses were by double-digit margins. Their lone victory came at Akron in November, although the Zips also finished with a 1-11 record.
Coach Molnar said at his pre-game press conference that in year two his team knows what to expect from the coaches on a daily basis.
"Going into our first game, we are a more confident team than we were a year ago," Molnar said. "We are playing harder and playing together. We are still young in several spots and will play a lot of true freshmen again this year just like last season, but I see good things coming up."
This will be the first-ever meeting between these two schools.
For the Minutemen, there is nowhere to go but up after averaging only 11.9 ppg in their first season at the FBS level. Quarterback Mike Wegzyn struggled in the passing game last year as a redshirt freshman (52.6 percent, six TDs, 10 INTs) and will need to step up his efficiency metrics. His only established weapon is senior tight end Rob Branchflower, who was second on the team with 43 catches for 464 yards, with more than half of that yardage coming over the final four games.
Former running back Michael Cox was drafted by the New York Giants, leaving Wegzyn (141 yards) as the top returning rusher. Adding to the overall uncertainty surrounding the offense is the fact that senior tackle Anthony Dima (6-7, 302) is the only returnee from an offensive line that was regularly overmatched last season.
The UMass defense endured similar struggles in 2012, yielding averages of 40.2 points and 458.8 yards per game. Making matters worse, leading tacklers Perry McIntyre (132 tackles) and Darren Thellen (78 tackles) have both moved on.
Sophomores Jovan Santos-Knox, Kassan Messiah (65 tackles, 3.0 TFL) and John Robinson are in line to start at the three linebacker spots. In the secondary, three starters return in Trey Dudley-Giles, Randall Jette (two interceptions) and Khary Bailey-Smith (two INTs). Additionally, three starters return along the defensive line. Senior defensive end Kevin Byrne is the only player back that registered multiple sacks (two) for a team that had a total of only 12. The three other members of the front four, Daniel Maynes (6-2, 250), Galen Clemons (6-2, 275) and Stanley Andre (6-2, 240) are undersized, which could lead to another season of success for the opposition's rushers.
Wisconsin's quarterback battle is between redshirt sophomore Joel Stave and juco transfer Tanner McEvoy. Coach Andersen declined to divulge the starter but said both quarterbacks have been informed privately of the decision. Stave was one of three players to start under center for Wisconsin last season and had an up-and-down campaign, while McEvoy brings a slightly different skill set.
The Badger offense was predicated on the run last season, and for good reason, as they ranked 13th in the nation in rushing offense (236.4 ypg). But that was with FBS career touchdown leader and two-time consensus All-American Montee Ball leading the charge in the backfield.
Now, the job is all up to senior James White, who has rushed for 2,571 yards (6.1 ypc) and 32 TDs in part-time duty through his first three seasons. Redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon is also due for an increased workload after averaging 10.0 yards on 62 carries as a freshman.
Wideout Jared Abbrederis (49 rec, 5 TD) and tight end Jacob Pedersen (27 rec, 4 TD) figure to be heavily involved in the passing game as Wisconsin seeks offensive balance.
Andersen brings with him a defensive pedigree, as he also previously served as defensive coordinator of the 2008 Utah team that beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl that season. Seven starters return, and they are mostly in the front- seven.
On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin will employ a new scheme under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who brings the 3-4 with him from Utah State. After ranking 11th in the Big Ten with just 15 takeaways in 2012, it would appear an opportune time to implement a change in style. All-Big Ten selection Mike Taylor will be missed from the linebacker corps, but Chris Borland (104 tackles, 10.0 TFL) and Ethan Armstrong (93 tackles) are ready to step up.
Three new starters will occupy the secondary, which represents perhaps the biggest question mark on the roster next to quarterback. Free safety Dezmen Southward (69 tackles) is the only holder from the starting defensive backfield.