Sophomore quarterback Mike Wegzyn and the University of Massachusetts will play at No. 23 Wisconsin Saturday at noon in both teams season opener.
AMHERST — There was no scenario that made preparing for Wisconsin easy for the University of Massachusetts coaching staff. The Badgers are ranked No. 23 coming off a Rose Bowl appearance, while the Minutemen are trying to bounce back after a 1-11 season.
This will also be Wisconsin’s first game under new coach Gary Andersen. The man who built Utah State into a Mountain West contender took over when Bret Bielema was hired at Arkansas. So the Minutemen coaches know what personnel the Badgers have and they know what plays and systems Andersen and his staff ran with the Aggies. How those will mesh together Saturday at noon at Camp Randall Stadium remains uncertain.
“We watched tons of Utah State film over the past couple of months,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said earlier this week. “They’ve had a ton of time with their players and they have some really good players. They’re good coaches. That’s a well-coached football team. I’m sure they’re going to do a great job there at Wisconsin.”
To ease the transition, Andersen said the new Badger staff learned the terminology that had been in place rather than make the players learn a new language.
“We’ll tweak it every year based on personnel. There’s no one magic scheme,” Andersen said. “You want to put yourself in position to be successful with the kids in the program. There’s some tweaks every year. I don’t think it’s a radical change from what we would like to do.”
Andersen praised UMass on the Big Ten’s weekly coaches’ teleconference.
“They’ve got a lot of experience coming back, especially the defensive staff. The defensive front seven is a veteran crew. It’s gonna be, obviously, a challenge with the years of experience they have there. With Phil (Elmassian) as the coordinator; we’re looking forward to that,” Andersen said. “Offensively, (they have) a very talented quarterback, in our opinion, that’s done some good things. Mike (Wegzyn) is hard to track around. He’s a good scrambler and gets rid of the football in a good way, so we’ll have to keep our eyes on that. I know they’ve had a couple injuries. Don’t know where those young men are, and I hope they get the opportunity to play.”
The Minutemen think Andersen’s praise is justified. They’re hoping to prove themselves better than their record and performance last year.
“I’ve been counting the days down for a while,” UMass sophomore quarterback Wegzyn said. “It’s surprising how fast it went from last season until now. We made a lot of improvement. I couldn’t be more excited. I’m definitely eager. I can’t wait to get on the field and start showing other people what we already know and how we’ve grown and gotten better from last year until now.”
Time & location: Noon, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
Last year: UMass (1-11); Wisconsin (8-6, lost to Stanford in the Rose Bowl)
All-time series: First meeting
TV/Internet: Big Ten Network
Radio: WWEI-FM (105.5)
When UMass has the ball: The fact Wegzyn is one of the Minutemen’s most experienced offensive players is a pretty good indicator of how young the offense is.
With tight end Rob Blanchflower out, Wegzyn, left tackle Anthony Dima and wide receiver Tajae Sharpe are the only players who have started regularly prior to this season. How well the refurbished offensive line competes will go a long way to determining whether new tailback Stacey Bedell can get free and if Wegzyn can develop any rhythm passing.
The Badgers, who switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4, have just five starters back on defense, but there’s still plenty of talent in that front seven that figures to bring more pressure that it had in years past.
Linebacker figures to be a strength with seniors Chris Borland (104 tackles, 41∕2 sacks) and Ethan Armstrong (93 tackles) back. Senior Tyler Dippel and Brendan Kelly will be hybrid edge rushers lining up at defensive end and outside linebacker. They shared the team lead in sacks with 5.0 each last year.
Nose tackle Beau Allen will anchor the defensive line.
Free safety Dezmen Southward is the lone returning starter in the secondary. The senior was the top tackler in the defensive back field with 69 stops last year.
When Wisconsin has the ball: Sophomore Joel Stave is expected to start under center. Stave missed the second half of the 2012 regular season with a broken collar bone, but returned for the Rose Bowl. He completed 70-of-119 passes for 1,104 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. Andersen hasn’t officially named him the starter, but several Wisconsin media outlets have reported that Stave beat out senior Curt Phillips.
Jared Abbrederis is the top returning receiver. He caught 49 passes for 837 yards and five TDs last year.
Montee Ball and his 1,830 rushing yards (5,140 career) are gone from the offensive backfield, but Wisconsin never seems to lack for running back talent. James White (806 yards, 12 TDs) and Melvin Gordon (621, three TDs) give the Badgers a potentially dominant tandem.
UMass is optimistic that its defense, which features quite a few underclassmen who saw time a year ago, will be a strength this season. How it holds up against Wisconsin’s always strong offensive line could be a barometer going forward.