All it took for Wisconsin to move into the top 10 was a pair of comfortable home wins against overmatched opponents.
In order to stay there, the 10th-ranked Badgers will have to do a little bit more.
Wisconsin’s first road trip of the year will be a challenging one, as the Badgers hope to justify their lofty ranking when they visit 21st-ranked Fresno State in the Bulldogs’ home opener on Saturday night.
After rushing for more than 400 yards in its season-opening 38-17 victory over Akron on Aug. 30, Wisconsin proved it could throw last week, as quarterback Allan Evridge passed for 308 yards and a touchdown in a 51-14 win over Marshall at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers (2-0) also had six rushing touchdowns against the Thundering Herd, but standout back P.J. Hill was held to 3.2 yards per carry by a Marshall defense intent on making Wisconsin throw.
“Anytime a quarterback has to hand the ball off 40, 50 times in their opener, everybody’s going to say, ‘Well, can he throw it?’” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said.
Evridge, a transfer from Kansas State in his first year starting for Wisconsin, responded, going 17-for-26.
“It shows that we’re a very balanced offense and we can do both,” said Evridge, who had attempted only 10 passes in the Badgers’ opener. “But I think as a unit we always knew that we could throw the ball.”
He’s hoping to have another target this week in standout tight end Travis Beckum, who could be available Sunday. After racking up more than 900 receiving yards each of the last two seasons, Beckum hasn’t yet played in 2008 due to a hamstring injury.
Slow starts have hindered the Badgers in their first two games. Wisconsin led by a touchdown at halftime against Akron before pulling away, and trailed Marshall 14-0 before scoring 51 unanswered points.
“We came out flat, and realized they came out to play,” linebacker DeAndre Levy said last Saturday. “You think about 14-0, it’s time to do something. We can’t come out that flat against a team. Better teams will finish us off.”
Fresno State (1-0) certainly qualifies as a better opponent. The Bulldogs had last weekend off, but coming off a 9-4 season that included a Humanitarian Bowl win over Georgia Tech, they had already turned surged into the top 25 with a 24-7 victory at Rutgers in their Sept. 1 season opener.
Sophomore back Ryan Mathews ran for 163 yards and three touchdowns in that game, but perhaps more impressive was Fresno State’s defense. Marvin Haynes intercepted Scarlet Knights quarterback Mike Teel twice and the Bulldogs shut out Rutgers through three quarters.
“I think they are a defense that plays with great energy,” Evridge told Wisconsin’s official athletics Web site. “They’re very sound with what they do and they play hard. They’re a tough, hard-nosed team and we try to be the same.”
Fresno State has been especially tough at home under coach Pat Hill, going 51-12 there since his 1997 hiring. Wisconsin matches the highest-ranked team ever to visit Fresno, but the Bulldogs beat then-No. 10 Oregon State 44-24 on Sept. 2, 2001.
Wisconsin is the second of three BCS conference opponents on the schedule for Fresno State. Later this month, the Bulldogs visit UCLA, which is currently one spot outside of the top 25.
“I don’t think we’re a mid-major team,” said Fresno State senior quarterback Tom Brandstater, who threw for 216 yards against Rutgers. “I think we can play with anyone in the country.”
They proved they could beat Wisconsin in 2001, earning a 32-20 win in Madison before losing 23-21 there the following year. The victory remains Fresno State’s lone win all-time in five games against Big Ten opponents.
Since their loss to the Bulldogs, the Badgers have been nearly unbeatable in non-conference play. Wisconsin has won 26 of its last 27 regular season games outside of the Big Ten, including seven in a row on the road.