No. 4 Wisconsin 19, Western Mich. 7

Saturday, September 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — At the end of the longest day of Barry Alvarez's coaching career, the Wisconsin coach sat silently behind a podium, mopping his brow and studying a stat sheet.

Alvarez will be doing a lot of deep thinking in the upcoming days. His No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers picked up an uneasy victory and many troubling questions during a 19-7 win over Western Michigan on Thursday night.

Three hours before kickoff, Wisconsin said 26 players had been suspended from one to three games for receiving unadvertised discounts at a shoe store. Eleven players served all or part of their suspensions against Western Michigan.

Five starters were suspended for the game. For at least three more weeks, the Badgers will be missing key components of a team that hopes to contend for a national title.

Wisconsin's appeals to the NCAA for a lighter punishment failed only hours before the suspensions were announced. Alvarez and his assistants frantically devised a game plan for both the order in which the suspensions would be served and a team that was missing several important parts.

``We've got a lot of correcting to do, but we can correct it,'' Alvarez said. ``We can at least get a plan together on some things, and the kids can have some sense of what's going on. We're going to be piecemeal for a while, but we'll live with it. This (game) was huge to get through.''

In the other Top 25 game Thursday, No. 5 Miami routed McNeese St. 61-14. In other games, it was Auburn 35, Wyoming 21; Marshall 63, SE Missouri 7; Northwestern 35, N. Illinois 10; Baylor 20, North Texas 7; and Appalachian St. 20, Wake Forest 16.

Eighteen of the Top 25 teams are scheduled to open their season Saturday: San Jose State is at No. 1 Nebraska; No. 3 Alabama at UCLA; Bowling Green at No. 6 Michigan; Louisiana Tech at No. 8 Kansas State; Ball State at No. 9 Florida; Georgia Southern at No. 10 Georgia; Akron at No. 11 Virginia Tech; No. 22 Southern Mississippi at No. 13 Tennessee; Idaho at No. 14 Washington; Central Michigan at No. 15 Purdue; Fresno State at No. 16 Ohio State; The Citadel at No. 17 Clemson; Tulane at No. 18 Mississippi; UTEP at No. 19 Oklahoma; Middle Tennessee at No. 21 Illinois; Colorado State faces No. 23 Colorado in Denver; and Notre Dame plays host to No. 25 Texas A&M.

Michael Bennett rushed for 128 yards and a touchdown in the Badgers' first game since the graduation of NCAA career rushing leader Ron Dayne. Wisconsin's offense looked out of sync and struggled to produce the methodical drives once led by the Heisman Trophy winner.

Bennett got 30 carries, but rarely broke into the Broncos' defensive backfield, and Wisconsin's passing game was erratic, but the underwhelming performance can't be attributed entirely to the suspensions. Only four Badgers expected to play a significant amount were suspended.

Receiver Chris Chambers — who's injured anyway — receiver-kick returner Nick Davis and offensive tackle Ben Johnson were the only offensive starters out. All-American cornerback Jamar Fletcher and linebacker Bryson Thompson were the missing defensive starters.

Fletcher and Davis were in the Badgers' locker room at halftime, exhorting their teammates to fight through the adversity and the oppressive heat that gripped Camp Randall Stadium.

``They're angry,'' said receiver Lee Evans, who led the Badgers with three catches for 55 yards. ``Nobody wants to be sitting out — not when it's your home opener, and especially at night with all the lights.''

The Badgers' defensive line, led by junior Wendell Bryant, had an outstanding game. The defense limited the Broncos to minus-1 yards rushing and less than 24 minutes of possession.

``Those guys we lost, we love them to death, but they've got to do their time, and we've got to move on and play,'' Bryant said. ``We take pride when we play in Camp Randall. That's something we hold sacred.''

Wisconsin didn't get an offensive touchdown until a 68-yard drive capped by Bennett's 8-yard run with 9:31 to play. Thirteen seconds later, defensive end Ross Kolodziej sacked Broncos quarterback Jeff Welsh for a safety.

Josh Hunt scored on an 89-yard punt return in the second quarter for the Badgers, who entered the season with the highest preseason ranking in school history. Hunt, a junior playing in his first game, made the second-longest punt return in school history.

Wisconsin quarterback Brooks Bollinger frequently scrambled, but found no one open. Bollinger, the Big Ten freshman of the year last season, was 6-for-11 for 96 yards while improving to 9-0 as a starter.

``A lot of stuff was hitting us, but we knew we could beat that crowd,'' Evans said. ``It didn't matter who was on the field — first-teamers, second-teamers, whatever — we came to do a job.''

Western Michigan's wide-open passing offense capitalized on Fletcher's absence. Welsh, in his first start since replacing Tim Lester, was 20-for-39 for 243 yards and was intercepted once.

``We didn't say, 'This is our shot, this is our chance because they're going to be down,''' Broncos linebacker Garrett Soldano said. ``We didn't make a big deal about it, and the coaches didn't either. We just heard about it and went about our business.''

The Broncos trailed 10-7 at halftime after Welsh capped an 80-yard drive with a 2-yard TD pass to Mobolaji Afariogun with 1:54 left in the second quarter.

The Badgers' opener was played on one of the hottest days of the year in Wisconsin, with the school flashing messages on the scoreboard urging fans to drink plenty of water.

``I'm a shell of my former self,'' Bryant lamented. ``It was soooooo hot. It's never been this hot in Wisconsin before.''

No. 5 Miami 61, McNeese St. 14

Ken Dorsey threw three TD passes and Santana Moss had 204 all-purpose yards as host Miami routed Division I-AA McNeese State.

Miami scored on six of eight first-half possessions, including five touchdowns, and had 628 total yards.

Dorsey, 17-of-29 for 248 yards, hit Reggie Wayne on a pair of perfectly thrown fade passes in the same corner of the end zone in the first quarter.

Moss returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown and scored on a 75-yard run. He finished with 75 yards rushing, 94 return yards and 35 yards receiving.

No. 22 Southern Mississippi at No. 13 Tennessee

In the late 1980s and early 90s, Southern Mississippi built a reputation as a 'giant killer,' scoring upsets over ranked teams Florida State, Auburn and Alabama.

But it's been nine years since the Golden Eagles have beaten a ranked non-conference opponent.

No. 22 Southern Miss gets another shot Saturday night in Knoxville against No. 13 Tennessee.

From the players to the fans, coach Jeff Bower wants everybody involved with Southern Mississippi football to expect the team to compete for a national championship.

``You've got to believe big things are going to happen,'' Bower said. ``If you don't, you're not going to be big.''

Beating Tennessee would be big, but the Golden Eagles don't look at themselves as underdogs. They are 10-0 the last two years when Derrick Nix, the first player in school history to rush for more than 1,000 years in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, rushes for 100 yards.

``Everybody says we have a tough game. Tennessee's got a tough game coming, too,'' Nix said.

A rash of early NFL departures and inexperience at quarterback have some wondering if the Volunteers, who have won at least nine games each of the past five seasons, might slip this year.

``I'd say their strength is their overall team speed,'' Bower said. ``If you know anything about Tennessee, you know that they recruit extremely well.''