Russell Wilson, UW vs. UNLV

Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson (16) runs off the field after the Badgers defeated UNLV 51-17 on Thursday at Camp Randall Stadium.

M.P. King -- Wisconsin State Journal

Traditionally, the University of Wisconsin opens its football season in anonymity.

Although the Badgers have been ranked in 14 of the last 18 preseason polls, they never schedule big-time opponents for their opener and thus tend to make their debut well off the radar screen.

Not this year.

When the folks at ESPN asked UW and UNLV to move their game to Thursday night and kick off college football's 2011 television schedule, Badgers coach Bret Bielema, whose appetite for national exposure knows no limits, jumped at the chance.

"I think the ability to say that we're going to kick off the college football season is a big, big deal," Bielema said last week. "They could have reached out to 120 other teams."

Instead, ESPN reached out to UW, which opened the season ranked 11th and has seen its expectations soar exponentially since Russell Wilson transferred from North Carolina State two months ago, filling the team's biggest hole with a decorated quarterback who had 36 college starts under his belt.

Of course, there's a price to pay when the ESPN cameras show up to see what the hype is all about. When all eyes are trained on you, it's not good enough to just win, you have to go for style points.

That looked like a potential problem Thursday night at Camp Randall Stadium if only because UW has a history of slow starts in recent seasons, especially against UNLV. In fact, the last time UW lost a regular-season non-conference game was in 2003 to — you guessed it — the Rebels.

But if there was a hint of worry that the Badgers would disappoint those who tuned in for their first college football fix of the season, it was quickly and forcefully dispelled. If anything, UW's dominating 51-17 victory over UNLV will only add to the buzz surrounding the Badgers.

"I was a little surprised," center Peter Konz said. "Normally, in the beginning of the season there's some things you have to work out with your team, but today it felt like everything was clicking on all cylinders. Hopefully, we can improve upon that."

It took UW less than a half to make its point. The offensive stars — Wilson, wide receiver Nick Toon and tailbacks Montee Ball and James White — took turns outdoing one another during a first half that ended with the Badgers holding a 37-3 lead and fans from coast to coast wondering what Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien was thinking when he squeezed Wilson out of his program.

Keep in mind that the Rebels are in the second year of a rebuilding project under coach Bobby Hauck and were 2-10 last season. However, the Badgers picked up right where they left off last year, especially on offense.

UW averaged a school-record 41.5 points per game in 2010 and, if anything, the offense looked even more explosive Thursday night. In the first half, it gained 374 yards on only 30 plays.

It all started with Wilson, who somehow lived up to the massive preseason hype. He overthrew two wide-open tight ends early, but if he made another mistake, the coaches will have to find it on film because it wasn't apparent to the naked eye. Wilson threw accurately from the pocket and on the move, but it wasn't until he pulled the ball down and took off on a 46-yard touchdown run that his speed, moves and running instincts became apparent to all.

But while most of the attention was focused on Wilson during fall camp, it soon became clear than everyone missed the boat by ignoring Ball. After dropping 25 pounds since last season, he looked more explosive and elusive as a runner and, perhaps more important, as a receiver.

And here's the kicker. White matched Ball almost run for run and catch for catch.

Toon's contribution was brief but much welcomed. Many think he's the key to the season after an injury-plagued 2010. Two tough catches on UW's third scoring drive — one in which he won a jump ball for a 39-yard gain even as he drew a flag for pass interference, another on a 15-yard slant that carried to the 1 — showed that he and Wilson already have a connection.

UW's defense wasn't as impressive as its offense, especially against the run. However, the most encouraging sign was that Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert, two of the J.J. Watt wannabes at defensive end, had sacks of UNLV quarterback Caleb Herring.

When the nationally televised romp was over, about all you could say was, "I hope UNLV is pretty good this year." Unfortunately, that's probably wishful thinking. The Rebels were picked to finish last in the Mountain West Conference.

Still, this was the same opponent that threw a scare into UW in last year's opener, trailing the Badgers by only three points at halftime before falling 41-21. This time, UW not only scored points in its opener, it scored style points. And plenty them.

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