Provo • A year ago at this time, the BYU Cougars had a 5-4 record and entered November staring at the prospects of playing three straight opponents from the Western Athletic Conference with absolutely zero national prestige: Idaho, San Jose State and New Mexico State.
Obviously, things are a bit different in 2013, BYU's third year of independence.
The 6-2 Cougars will get back to work Monday after their second bye week of the season and turn their attention full-throttle on perhaps their biggest challenge in years. Up next is Saturday's 1:30 p.m. showdown at Camp Randall Stadium against the powerful Wisconsin Badgers (6-2).
The first meeting between BYU and Wisconsin since 1980 (a 28-3 BYU win in Madison) will be televised nationally by ESPN. Wisconsin, coached by former Utah State coach Gary Andersen, moved up to No. 21 in the Associated Press Top 25, No. 22 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, after downing Iowa 28-9 on Saturday.
BYU got votes in both major polls Sunday and would be 28th in the AP poll and 29th in the coaches poll if they extended that far.
"It is really what we were hoping for when we became independent," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said last Monday. "Late in the year, as an independent, [getting] Wisconsin and Notre Dame [on Nov. 23], that is closer to what I anticipated in the beginning. It just takes time to get there."
And it will take BYU's best performance of the season to topple the Big Ten power.
Wisconsin is the only team that has come close to knocking off undefeated Ohio State, falling 31-24 in Columbus, and by most accounts was robbed by Pac-12 referees on Sept. 14 in a 32-30 loss to 6-2 Arizona State in Tempe. The Badgers are 18th in the country in total offense (494.6 ypg.) and No. 6 in total defense (286.1 ypg.).
They average 287 rushing yards per game, 10th-best in the country, and have two running backs who are averaging more than 100 yards per game, Melvin Gordon (134.3) and James White (100.5). Coincidentally, BYU is the only other team in the country with two players averaging at least 100 rushing yards per game, running back Jamaal Williams (104.7) and quarterback Taysom Hill (105.1).
"I think we are going into Wisconsin to prove ourselves, that we can play on the big stage, on ESPN or ABC or whatever network we are playing on, against a great opponent, against a great coach who I like, coach Andersen, he's a great guy, [and] against good players," said BYU's All-America linebacker, Kyle Van Noy. "It is going to be a good atmosphere. It is going to be a fun game. It is going to be physical, because their defense is physical. Our defense is physical, their offense is physical, and our offense can be physical, but also puts in finesse, so I think it is going to be a fun game."
In Saturday's win at Iowa, White ran for 132 yards and two late touchdowns and UW's defense held Iowa to 294 yards, Iowa's second-lowest output of the season. Quarterback Joel Stave threw two touchdown passes.
The Badgers played without reserve defensive end Tyler Dippel, who was attending to a family matter, and linebacker Chris Borland, held out due to a hamstring injury. Also, all-Big Ten receiver Jared Abbraderis left the game after suffering a chest injury while catching a touchdown pass in the second half.
The Cougars will be without punt returner and second-leading receiver JD Falslev, who broke his hand last week and will be out 3-4 weeks. Part-time starting linebacker Austen Jorgensen has been lost for the season with a knee injury and will have surgery this week.
"We are positioned pretty well to play well at Wisconsin," Mendenhall said before the Falslev and Jorgensen injuries were announced. "If we do that, then we will see who is next and we will just keep going. But it becomes intriguing about now."
BYU receiver Cody Hoffman said these are the types of games that keep the players' interest and motivation levels high in the last month of the regular season.
"I think it will be a great matchup," Hoffman said. "I feel like we are ranked close. We know they are going to be good. It's a big school, and we are just going to watch film and do our homework, and play to our strengths and abilities."
BYU at Wisconsin
P Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN
BYU and Wisconsin in national statistical rankings
Category BYU BYU actual UW UW actual
Total offense 12th 511.1 ypg. 18th 494.6 ypg.
Rushing offense 14th 258.8 ypg. 10th 287.0 ypg.
Total defense 51st 382.6 ypg. 6th 286.1 ypg.
Rushing defense 42nd 145.3 ypg. 5th 91.0 ypg.