MADISON, Wis. — Noticeable changes surfaced on the periphery of Wisconsin’s football program for its season-opening, 45-0 victory against UMass on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. Given a new coaching staff, establishing at least a few new traditions seemed inevitable.
Gone was Bret Bielema, the former coach whose pre-game routine included jogging in front of players through the tunnel toward the field. In his place was Gary Andersen, a man content to walk from the back and let his players take the spotlight.
Before the fourth quarter, when fans joined forces for their traditional mosh pit to the song “Jump Around,” players encircled Andersen and for the first time hopped around with their coach right along with the fan base. And when the game was over, Andersen instructed players to stay on the field to sing the school fight song — a tune many are still learning.
“Maybe we need to get the band over here and get on the same page,” Andersen said with a smile afterward. “It took a minute. I wouldn’t say we were game ready in singing ‘On Wisconsin’.”
The stories of Andersen instituting an atmosphere of fun and family have been told ad nauseum since he took over the program in December. While those characteristics have been embraced in Madison, the one thing nobody really knew was exactly what the football team would look like on the field in its first game.
Unlike the other changes, similarities far outnumbered the differences between the lines. And considering Wisconsin is the three-time defending Big Ten champion, it was cause for relief among players and the 76,306 red-and-white clad fans in attendance.
“To me, it was almost exactly the same,” Badgers tight end Jacob Pedersen said. “We’re running the ball. Guys are flying around. We’re trying to be as physical as we can. That’s what I’ve known my entire career here, and I don’t see that changing at all.”
Sure, there were bound to be wrinkles. Defensively, the Badgers are now playing a 3-4 defense that creates more pressure, earning the team’s first season-opening shutout since 1994. On offense, Wisconsin seems willing to take more chances down the field. Quarterback Joel Stave connected with wide receiver Jared Abbrederis twice on deep play-action passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
“We got our little tweaks for the offense,” UW fullback Derek Watt said. “But it’s pretty similar. It’s a good feeling to know that we don’t have to change our whole offense. We can do what we came in here to do and what we’re used to.”
Wisconsin has now won 16 consecutive season openers and 17 straight home openers.
The Badgers are 56-6 (.903 winning percentage) at Camp Randall Stadium since the start of the 2004 season, the third-best home record in the country during that span.
Most of those victories, of course, came under Bielema, who won 68 games and lost 24 during his seven-year tenure in charge of the program. He helped keep the Badgers in the Big Ten race and relevant on a national level, reaching the past three Rose Bowls.
Fans may not have always liked his brash demeanor, sometimes-arrogant attitude and poor bowl game record (2-4), but he won games at a clip that surpassed even legendary coach Barry Alvarez. And he did so by maintaining Wisconsin’s smash-mouth style that focused on wearing down opponents with a strong offensive line and run game.
Andersen made a point during his introductory press conference to note he, too, would maintain Wisconsin’s run-first, pro-style offense. And despite any fears from the fan base, he certainly held true to his word on Saturday.
Wisconsin ran the ball 44 times and passed on 18 occasions. The Badgers gained 393 yards rushing and had three running backs eclipse the 100-yard plateau and score a touchdown: Melvin Gordon (144 yards), James White (143) and Corey Clement (101). It was the first time Wisconsin ever had three different running backs gain at least 100 yards in a season opener.
White and Gordon were so dominant that former Badgers standout Montee Ball, the all-time NCAA touchdown leader and reigning Doak Walker Award winner, tweeted: “So y’all trying to embarrass me huh?”
“Their running game has been honed over two decades,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said. “Recruiting to a certain profile, offensive linemen, running back, tight ends, you honestly, you could’ve been watching the 1992 Badgers with coach Alvarez with the same plays, just different guys doing the same things.
In many ways, the same can be said for Wisconsin’s new coach.