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Badgers’ versatile QB forces Rebels to expand game plan

UNLV could have picked far more ideal opponents than Wisconsin to open its season, but if there was any saving grace for the Rebels, at least the Badgers were in transition at quarterback.

Then Russell Wilson transferred from North Carolina State in June. So much for that ray of hope.

Since Wilson’s arrival, the 11th-ranked Badgers have not only become Big Ten Conference contenders in the eyes of many, but also a team that could compete for the national championship.

The Rebels will find out up close when they visit Wisconsin, a 35-point favorite, at 5 p.m. PDT Thursday.

“I think they deserve that ranking,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said.

Wilson succeeds Scott Tolzien, who quarterbacked the Badgers to the Rose Bowl last season. At N.C. State, Wilson passed for more than 3,000 yards each of the past two seasons. No Wisconsin QB has ever topped 3,000.

The Badgers usually prefer to win on the ground behind a massive offensive line. They took it to UNLV in last year’s opener, rushing for 278 yards in a 41-21 victory at Sam Boyd Stadium. Wisconsin finished 11-2, averaging 245.7 yards rushing.

The Badgers’ grind-it-out formula might not change much, even with Wilson behind center. Running back John Clay (1,012 yards rushing, 14 touchdowns in 2010) is gone, but James White (1,052, 14) and Montee Ball (996, 18) return.

Wilson, though a pass-first quarterback, also is an effective runner, having rushed for 17 career touchdowns during three years as N.C. State’s starter.

“Wisconsin’s won a lot of games doing things their way, so I don’t think that they’re going to change a ton,” Hauck said. “With that being said, we have spent about a (practice) period a day on quarterback run stuff trying to get ready, if they do in fact decide that’s what they want to do with him.”

The combination of Wilson and those backs also gives Wisconsin the potential to continue to be an outstanding play-action passing team.

“Their run game is so dominant the past couple of years, they’ve really made hay in the play-action game,” Hauck said “One of the things you worry most about is (Wilson) will pull the ball and run with it when there’s nothing downfield.”

The Rebels’ defense often has been incapable of slowing strong rushing games. UNLV has allowed more than 200 yards rushing per game the past three seasons, including 222.7 last year. Eight opponents topped 200 against the Rebels, who now also must defend Wilson.

He was able to transfer and play right away because he received his undergraduate degree from N.C. State. Wilson, a minor leaguer in the Colorado Rockies system, left the Wolfpack because coach Tom O’Brien thought his baseball obligations took too much time from offseason football conditioning.

The Rebels’ task against the Badgers would have been difficult enough if Wilson hadn’t transferred. Now it seems nearly impossible.

“We spent a lot of time watching them, studying them,” Hauck said. “We admire the way they do business and the way they play, and Thursday night, we get a chance to test ourselves against one of the best teams in the country.”

■ NOTES — Michael Johnson, who last season led the Rebels with 51 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns, isn’t on the two-deep chart. Johnson is expected to play but was hampered by an injured left knee late in camp. … Positions that haven’t been decided include offensive left tackle (Brett Boyko or Cameron Jefferson), defensive tackle (Alex Klorman or Nate Holloway), strong safety (Daniel Harper or Eric Tuiloma-Va’a) and free safety (Tajh Hasson or Kenny Brown).

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

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