LAS VEGAS — University of Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst is not especially prone to halftime outbursts, but even he can only take so much.
So, after watching his offense squander most of a dominating performance by uncharacteristic mistakes from two of its most reliable players — quarterback Scott Tolzien and wide receiver Nick Toon — Chryst didn't hold back at halftime against UNLV on Saturday night.
"He called out Scott and Toon, said, 'Hey, we're playing hard, you have to finish your job. Everyone needs to do their job,' " senior left tackle Gabe Carimi said. "That was the major speech: 'Just keep on doing your job and we'll win this game.' "
One of the good things about the 12th-ranked Badgers this season is that as a veteran squad, they shouldn't need too much fiery halftime oration.
"I don't know how much we've got to say to this team," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "This team is a group that kind of understands and they get what we want. They'll take care of some things on their own."
That's what the Badgers did in the second half, pulling away for a 41-21 victory that was more dominating than the final score looked.
The Badgers had a 23-10 edge in first downs and looked unstoppable at times while rolling up 475 yards, to 217 for UNLV.
They opened up the game with reserve guard Ryan Groy lined up at fullback and looked like they would run the Rebels right out of Sam Boyd Stadium. Mixing and matching three tailbacks, UW had 50 rushes for 278 yards.
"They're really good at what they do and if you start getting out of gaps and not playing things soundly, with their heavy personnel they have a body for everybody (on defense) but one," said first-year Rebels coach Bobby Hauck. "There are times when we played it well and times when they made us look bad."
But even an overpowering performance can be undone by mistakes, a lesson the Badgers learned in the loss to Ohio State last season, when they had two interceptions returned for touchdowns and allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown.
The Badgers scored easily on their first two possession to take a 14-0 lead when Tolzien made a poor read and forced a pass to Toon that cornerback Will Chandler intercepted and returned 19 yards for a touchdown.
Tolzien said there were two defenders on Toon's side and his rules tell him to go to the opposite side.
"I went against the grain," he said. "That's the result. That's just a great lesson for me — you stick with your base rules. That's what the three weeks of camp is (for), to define those rules."
With the Badgers leading 17-7, the normally sure-handed Toon had the ball stripped from behind after a catch at the UNLV two-yard line. Chandler returned the fumble 82 yards to set up a touchdown that made it 17-14 at halftime.
"Ball security is important," Toon said. "Obviously, on the play I fumbled on, I didn't have the ball secure. ... That's the first fumble of my college career. I don't think ball security's an issue for me."
Still, two plays earlier, when Toon lost two yards on an end-around, Bielema noticed he had the ball away from his body.
"I said something right there," Bielema said. "Next time he got the ball, it was the fumble. We have to see it as coaches and make the players believe it."
As a result, despite running 43 plays in the first half, to 15 for UNLV, with a 279-12 edge in total yards, the Badgers led by only three.
Chryst is willing to get vocal with players when necessary and this was one of those times.
"You can't beat yourselves, plain and simple," Tolzien said.
As it turns out, those first-half mistakes provided the Badgers with an early taste of adversity, which Bielema expected to come in the opener.
"I told the guys on Thursday, one thing we can't simulate in practice is adversity," Bielema said.
The response came on UNLV's opening drive of the second half, when defensive end J.J. Watt started out chasing the running back, then hustled over on a screen to receiver Michael Johnson, knocking the ball loose. Free safety Aaron Henry scooped up the fumble and returned it 20 yards for the touchdown.
It started a 24-0 third-quarter barrage that included twin 16-yard touchdown runs by John Clay and Montee Ball. Clay finished with 123 yards and two scores, while Ball had 79 and two TDs. Freshman James White chipped in 59 yards.
"To be 17-14 at the half is just going to be incredible teaching," Bielema said. "It's so much better than being whatever it should have been, either 24-7 or 31-0. It's better it happened this way."
At least the Badgers showed they could respond positively to their first taste of adversity.
"You're going to have some adversity," Henry said. "It's just a matter of when. We end up receiving our adversity early on in this game. It's not so much about when adversity happens but how you handle it. I definitely think our players stepped up and rose to the occasion."
Check out all the stats with the live box score. For complete postgame coverage, visit Madison.com sports overnight and pick up Sunday's edition of the Wisconsin State Journal.