FRESNO, Calif. - The last time Wisconsin beat a ranked non-conference opponent on the road, Barry Alvarez was 12 years old.
There’s a good chance the A.D. will remember this one.
Thanks to a solid defensive effort, a gritty offensive performance and two costly Fresno State turnovers and three missed field goals by the Bulldogs, No.10 Wisconsin survived with a 13-10 triumph over No.21 Fresno State, extending UW’s non-conference road winning streak to seven.
"We knew going into this game it was going to be a hard-fought, four-quarter game," said Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema. "They’ve got a very good football team. All the kudos in the world to Fresno State and Coach Hill. This is a great college environment ... (and) our guys really rose to the challenge."
Despite the Badgers not scoring a rushing touchdown for the first time this season, it was the running game that was the story line on both sides of the football for Wisconsin (3-0). Running back P.J. Hill carried the ball 26 times for 114 yards and the Wisconsin defense didn’t allow an opposing running back to eclipse 100 yards for the third-straight game.
Quarterback Allan Evridge finished 12-of-24 for 143 yards and one touchdown and continues to show that his veteran tight ends are his favorite targets. Junior Garrett Graham led the team in catches (five) and yards (58) and Travis Beckum, playing in his first game this season after a nagging hamstring injury kept him sidelined, caught four passes for 51 yards.
Although Wisconsin led from start to finish, the Bulldogs went down without a fight.
Fresno State’s offense was absent in the first half, but the Bulldogs erased all lacksidasical thoughts when receiver Devon Wylie weaved 47 yards through the Wisconsin defense into the end zone, cutting the lead to three. After Wisconsin’s next drive went three-and-out, the Badgers were forced to punt and the decibel level at Bulldog stadium was at its peak.
But thanks to State’s A.J. Jefferson, Fresno (1-1) gave Wisconsin another chance, as the bouncing punt hit Jefferson right in the back and was recovered by Wisconsin at the Fresno State 24. Six plays later, the Badgers tacked on a field goal to extend the lead to six.
On the very next offensive play, Shane Carter apparently forced a fumble from receiver Devon Wylie after the sophomore apparently secured the pass and made a football move up the field, meaning that the play should be deemed a fumble. After two-plus minutes reviewing the play, the WAC officiating crew thought otherwise, overturning the play and ruling the pass incomplete.
Four plays later, Fresno State QB Tom Brandstater (15-for-27, 225 yards) connected with Ryan Mathews on a screen pass that went for 61 yard gain, setting up a 33-yard field goal by Kevin Goessling to pull within 13-10 late in the third quarter.
The whole situation had a touch of irony for Badger fans. After last year’s Outback Bowl, Bielema mistakenly complained about the Western Athletic Conference officials after the last season’s lost to Tennessee, even though the officials were from the Mountain West Conference.
Wisconsin was called for seven penalties for 50 yards while Fresno State was only whistled for two penalties for 15 yards.
With eight minutes left, Wisconsin received a scare when Evridge went down to the turf after uncorking a down-field pass, clutching his left hamstring, had to be carted to the locker room and didn’t return until 1:55 left in the fourth quarter.
Junior Dustin Sherer came into the game on third-and-8 and completed a screen pass to Zach Brown, standing in strong in the face of a blitz, but he was stopped a yard short of the first down.
"Dustin, the last two weeks, has really grown as a football player," Bielema said. "I know he came into camp with expectations to be the starter, went through some adversity when he didn’t do it, and then to be able to put himself in a position to win the football game was huge."
With the Bulldogs down three and starting the drive from their own 14, collecting three first downs and driving to midfield before Wisconsin clamped down defensively. Stopping Matthews for a three-yard loss and sniffing out another pass play for only two yards, Wisconsin registered the third and biggest sack of the game when DeAndre Levy broke through the line and sacked Brandstater to force the Bulldogs to punt.
However, the punt was a beauty and came to rest on the Wisconsin one. With Evridge back and warming up on the sidelines, Sherer stayed in the came and helped sealed the win for the Badgers. After a QB sneak on first down to give UW some breathing room, fullback Bill Rentmeester pushed his way for eight yards threw the middle and moved the chains. With Fresno State having no timeouts left, three Dustin Sherer kneel downs clinched the victory.
Rushing for a team total of 154 yards, Wisconsin established the run on its second drive of the first half, marching 66 yards in 11 plays down to the Fresno State one-yard line, mostly on the back of Hill. The junior rushed seven times for 44 yards but once the Badgers got inside the Fresno four, UW went away from Hill and gave the ball to Brown; a move that prove to be ineffective after his two rushing attempts went for only three yards. Deciding to go for it on fourth and one, Hill was stopped short of the goal line and Wisconsin’s gamble backfired.
The Badgers didn’t have to wait long to get a second chance to establish momentum.
On the ensuing drive, Matt Shaughnessy was able to get his mitts on a Tom Brandstater pass attempt, deflected the ball to fellow senior DeAndre Levy for the game’s first turnover. Three plays later, Evridge connected with Garrett Graham for the duo’s third touchdown this season.
Wisconsin was dominant in the first half, out gaining the Bulldogs 202 to 93 and out rushing Fresno State 86 to 13 but couldn’t parlay that success on the scoreboard. Phil Welch was successful for the third-straight game by making a 38-yard field goal to push the lead to 10-0.
However, Fresno State’s stout special teams registered another trademark block, getting a finger on Welch’s 50-yard field goal attempt, sending the ball end over end as time expired.
Fresno State ended up blocking a punt in addition to Welch's kick but it was the missed opportunities that will haunt Pat Hill’s team. Goessling missed a 35-yard field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game at 13. He also missed a 41-yard try at the beginning of the second quarter and 51-yarder midway through the third.
Throw in the first-quarter interception that led to UW’s only touchdown, the fumble on the botched punt return and the drop of a sure interception and the final score could have been much different.
Despite being outgained 343 to 304, Wisconsin will take the victory and will enjoy a week off before traveling to Michigan on September 27th in the Big Ten Opener for both teams, knowing that they have as good a chance as any of making it to a BCS Bowl Game.
"To be undefeated going into Big Ten play is huge," Bielema said. "Just to be able to keep making corrections, keep moving forward. The world of college football, we’ll sit back and take a look as to where we’re at.
"The Big thing that we’ve got is a lot of good things have happened and a lot of bad things have happened that we can get corrected and that will help us in the Big Ten."