MADISON, Wis. — Thanks to a longtime friendship with Wisconsin’s new director of football operations, Zach Nyborg, BYU senior cornerback Mike Hague knows quite a bit about the Badgers’ history and tradition.
Hague and Nyborg have been friends since high school, and Nyborg graduated from BYU in 2011. They’ve had conversations about what makes Madison a special place.
“It’s been cool learning a little more about this program,” said Hague.
For Hague and many of his teammates, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play at historic Camp Randall Stadium Saturday (1:30 p.m. MST, ESPN), when the Cougars meet the No. 21 Badgers.
It’s also a chance to spring an upset against a ranked team in Big Ten Country — an opportunity that doesn't come around very often for BYU.
Cougar defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna has been excited about this showdown at Wisconsin “ever since we saw them on our schedule. That’s one of the biggest games I’ve been keeping in mind. It’s going to be a big challenge on the big stage.”
The stakes are high for the pair of 6-2 teams. While Wisconsin is looking to maintain its national ranking and remain in the hunt for a BCS bowl, BYU is looking to make a statement and jump into the rankings.
“It’s a quality opponent on the road, a top 25 team — we’re knocking on the door of that as well — this will be a great chance to prove, for either team, where we stand,” said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall.
History doesn't appear to be on the Cougars’ side.
BYU has lost nine consecutive games against ranked non-conference opponents on the road. The Cougars’ last three road losses to ranked non-conference teams came at the hands of Notre Dame, Boise State and Texas — by a combined total of five points.
The last time BYU beat a ranked non-conference foe was in 1997, at Arizona State.
Since going independent in 2011, the Cougars haven’t had any games like this — playing a nationally ranked team in the month of November.
“It’s exciting for us and for Cougar Nation,” Hague said. “For a couple of years, our fans definitely wanted us to play (high-profile) teams later in the year. It’s a great opportunity for us to play some good football in Wisconsin.”
“Being independent has given us opportunities to travel and see a lot of different venues and different environments,” said BYU quarterback Taysom Hill. “Going to Wisconsin gives us a great opportunity to make noise on a national level. They’re ranked in the top 25. They’re a known program throughout the country. It gives us an opportunity to go into a hostile environment and show what we can do against a very good opponent.”
The Cougars say they’re not afraid of the Badgers.
“They’re just big. I’m not scared. It’s football,” said sophomore running back Jamaal Williams. “They’re just another team for us. Not to put any disrespect on them. It’s an opportunity for us to win.”
BYU will have to deal with rowdy fans at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen is hoping they can disrupt the Cougars’ go-fast-go-hard offense.
“Our crowd can do a lot, and I know they will do a lot, to hamper BYU’s opportunities to play as fast as they want because it gets loud and it’s hard for them to be able to get the communication they normally get, from the snap count, to getting personnel on the field,” Andersen said. “A loud crowd causes problems with pace. I’m sure we’ll be all jacked up to take them out of the game or get an advantage at times.”
Andersen also said that Big Ten officials “do an unbelievable job of controlling pace and controlling tempo” of a game.
“The one way we can dictate tempo and pace is to do what we do on offense, and do it well — run the ball, be physical up front, put points on the board when given the opportunity and then play great special teams,” Andersen added.
“They’re slow and steady in terms of their tempo,” Mendenhall said of the Badgers. “They love to run the football. They love to take as much time as possible.”
While Wisconsin boasts a pair of running backs that average at least 100 rushing yards per game (the Badgers and Cougars are the only two teams in the nation that have two players averaging at least 100 rushing yards per game), Mendenhall is most concerned about one number.
“The No. 1 thing I care about is how many points they score,” he said. “If we can manage that well, we’ll have a chance to win.”
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