MADISON — One of the biggest debates since the Badgers earned a Rose Bowl berth has been focused on the distribution of carries among three running backs.
Do you go with what’s working in Montee Ball and James White? Or do you rely on your veteran running back John Clay, who just happens to have a Big Ten offensive player of the year award to his credit?
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema may have answered those questions Sunday night, when he met with reporters.
“Right now, Montee would be our starting running back,” Bielema said, matter of factly. “John has to wait for a few other guys to get in. Montee’s playing as good of football as anybody. No question.”
Well that sure seems to clear things up. Or does it?
With three weeks remaining until the Rose Bowl, it would not be out of the question for Bielema to change his mind and put Clay in the No. 1 spot. After all, he did say “right now” when referring to Ball as his starter.
While all three running backs have clearly expressed their support for one another, they never stop competing for carries. The idea that they have to work in practice to touch the ball in the game is not lost on the players either.
“I’d like to get my spot back, like how we were in the beginning of the year,” Clay said. “But I’ve just got to work for it. The guys played a heck of a few games when I was out, so I’ve just got to prove it again.”
Another thing that people can’t help but notice when looking ahead to the matchup with TCU is the potential for Wisconsin to have as many as three backs with 1,000 yards rushing on the year.
“Hopefully we can all get to it in this Rose Bowl game,” White added. “I don’t think any school’s ever done that before.”
White leads the way with 1,029 after another big performance against Northwestern, with Clay and Ball not far behind. Even after missing so much time, Clay needs just 64 yards to give the Badgers a second 1,000-yard rusher.
Ball’s chances aren’t as strong, but 136 yards certainly is not out of the question for the sophomore. When you consider he’s rushed for 127, 167, 173 and 178 yards against Purdue, Indiana, Michigan and Northwestern, it would almost be a surprise for Ball to come up shy of the mark.
Add his apparent status as the starting running back and his chances certainly improve even more. It’s not really something that he’s focusing on, though.
“First and foremost, the goal is to come out with a victory,” Ball said. “But it wouldn’t be a bad thing to crack 1,000. It’s definitely something that’s in the back of my mind and it’s going to motivate me to run even harder.”
In an ideal scenario, a big first half by Clay and the Badgers could give Wisconsin a big lead, with two of three backs over 1,000 yards on the year.
If that were to happen, how would those two running backs feel about deferring to Ball, to let him become the third to reach the milestone?
“Oh yeah, get his 1,000 yards, too,” Clay said. “He worked hard this whole season, so we might as well feed him the ball.”
Bielema was not so quick to embrace the idea of boosting Ball’s carries to get him to the 1,000-yard mark.
With his focus on winning, and not just playing in, the Rose Bowl, he expected to do whatever was needed to win.
“It’s obviously very attainable, but it’s not on our game plan list,” Bielema said. “The awards we’re getting and the recognition we get is a byproduct of what we do, and that’s going to be one of those same things.”
MADISON — As the postseason awards name their finalists, they should always be taken with some grain of salt. Even with that in mind, it was an impressive week for Wisconsin.
As a number of postseason individual awards named finalists this week, five Badgers — four on offense and one on the defensive side of the ball — and one UW head coach made the cut. They weren’t listed for just any awards either.
Senior left tackle Gabe Carimi made the final cut for the Outland Trophy, given annually to the nation’s best interior lineman. Three-time Pro Bowler, and Brookfield, Wis., native Joe Thomas currently holds the honor of being the only Outland Trophy winner in school history.
“I remember holding the bag for Joe Thomas,” Carimi said. “It’s a long way from that.”
Carimi’s honor undoubtedly comes in part as recognition for Wisconsin’s dominant rushing attack, which has been near impossible to stop over the past few games.
Of course, the three-headed monster out of the backfield wouldn’t likely have quite the same success without Carimi, a future first-rounder, leading the way.
“It’s a great honor and all I have to do is focus on keeping on playing well,” Carimi said. “I know my teammates helped me out to get me in that position. We have a great offensive line and obviously they looked at that, and we’re scoring and we’re running well. Obviously all that came into play when I got nominated.”
Joining Carimi in playing a huge role in blocking for the Wisconsin running game is senior tight end Lance Kendricks. While the Milwaukee native has not enjoyed the kind of statistically impressive season many predicted for him in the passing game, it didn’t matter.
Kendricks found his name this week as one of three finalists for the Mackey Award, given annually to the nation’s best tight end. Though current New York Giants tight end Travis Beckum was a semifinalist in 2006 and a finalist in 2007, if he were to win Kendricks would be the first Mackey Award winner in school history.
“That was definitely one of my preseason goals, just a personal goal to have and just something to strive toward,” Kendricks said of the award. “I think it’s a good honor just to be nominated for something like that.
“Just going out there and working hard and knowing at the end of the day, as long as you work hard, you’re going to get better. I think that’s kind of just what I live by as far as playing football.”
With Kendricks up for one of the more prestigious awards in the nation, it has not gone unnoticed by Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema.
In fact, he’s gotten on the phone since hearing the news, campaigning for his tight end. It’s not the first time Bielema has done such a thing, either.
“Early in my coaching career, one of the first players that was up for a national award was, Joe Thomas was up for the Outland Trophy,” Bielema said. “At the time Justin [Doherty] was the guy, and I said ‘Give me the voting list of all the people that vote for the Outland Trophy,’ and I just started calling people.
“I was in my car, driving around recruiting, called like 25 people, and they were all taken aback that I would call and lobby for my guy. I’m like, ‘Well, hey, he’s done everything for me for this year and beyond, I’ll do anything for him.’ So I’ve gotten on the phone over the last week and tried to reach out to so many people.”
One of three running backs Carimi and Kendricks have been blocking for is John Clay, the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year.
Despite missing the last two games due to injury, Clay was one of three finalists for the Doak Walker Award, given each year to the best running back in the country. While backups Montee Ball and James White have stolen the show lately, Clay got the nod as the Badgers leading rusher.
While the injuries have prevented Clay this season from putting up the numbers he’s shown he is capable of, the success and reputation of the Wisconsin rushing attack likely gave him a boost.
“I definitely think that has a lot to do with the success of the team,” Kendricks said of the multiple award finalists. “It’s hard to say enough about those guys.”
While Carimi, Kendricks and the rest of the offensive line lead the way up front for Clay, none of it would run as smoothly as it has without a competent signal caller behind center. Enter senior quarterback Scott Tolzien who has quietly led the nation in completion percentage through 11 games.
Tolzien, who also ranks in the top ten in pass efficiency, was named a finalist this week for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award, given each year to the top senior quarterback in the country.
“Me and Gabe were talking about it, and there’s a lot of interchangeable parts on this team, along the line, the running backs, the receivers, and I don’t think Scott Tolzien is one of them,” said senior left guard John Moffitt. “Scott is a valuable piece of the offense.”
Being the humble leader that he is, Tolzien politely disagreed.
“I think this program’s in good hands no matter who’s at quarterback.”
Along with the four offensive nominees, junior defensive end J.J. Watt was named a finalist for the Lott IMPACT Award, and Bielema was named by the Football Writers Association of America as a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award.
In talking about the awards at his Monday press conference, Bielema looked beyond the simple recognition of his players’ accomplishments.
What he was most proud of was the character of the athletes nominated.
“In today’s day and age, with these national awards, it’s one thing, it’s his body of work usually their senior year, or the year that they win the award that they’re going to get this basically get the recognition,” Bielema said. “But what’s this person going to be like two years, a year from now, two years from now, three years from now? I think it came to light with the Reggie Bush thing, and now there’s all this other discussion.
“I can guarantee this, J.J. Watt’s up for awards, Lance Kendricks is up for awards, Scott Tolzien is up for awards, John Clay, [is up for the Doak Walker Award].
“But those kids, if they win those awards, there will never be a day of embarrassment for that trophy because they represent some pretty good qualities in people.”
MADISON – It was national news this week that John Clay would sit out Saturday against Indiana with a sprained knee.
But those stories forgot to mention one thing: it didn’t matter.
With the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year watching from the sideline, Wisconsin rushed for 338 yards against Indiana, picking up an average of 7.2 yards on 47 attempts. The Badgers added six touchdowns, one shy of the school record.
“That just speaks to the talent that we have at running back,” John Moffitt said. “It’s great to have those guys.”
On 22 carries – 20 of which came before halftime – Ball rushed for a career-high 167 yards and three touchdowns. Taking on much of the load in the second half, White carried the ball 19 times, picking up 144 yards and two touchdowns.
Not only did Ball pick up 167 yards, he never once lost yardage on the day. Afterward, he credited his success to the impressive play up front.
“I worked hard in practice and I’m glad to see that I carried it over to the game,” Ball said. “Those holes were huge, anybody could’ve ran through them. So I give credit to them for working hard up there.
Ball made his first career start Saturday against the Hoosiers, and for the second straight year, he put up big numbers against Indiana. Last year in Bloomington, Ball rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries in Wisconsin’s 31-28 victory over Indiana.
Three touchdowns for Ball on the day also marked a career high, while his 167 rushing yards was a season high for a Wisconsin running back. Ball also marked his best rushing performance at home by more than 100 yards, with his previous best being an 11-carry, 64-yard day in the Badgers’ rout of Austin Peay.
“Today was his first start of the year, that’s what’s amazing,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “I really do think Montee understands the schemes.
“He chose us because of the way we play and obviously it’s working very well for him.”
After missing the Purdue game last week with a knee injury, White returned in his usual role as the Badgers’ No. 2 back and put together an impressive performance.
While it took him a few carries to get back to his usual self, White eventually looked as good as he has all season. In the fourth quarter, White rushed for 44 yards on his final play of the game before sitting out the final two minutes.
The Badgers’ third touchdown drive of the game, which followed a missed field goal by Indiana, epitomized the performance Saturday by the Wisconsin rushing attack.
On first down, Ball ripped off a 36-yard run down to the Indiana 30-yard line. As Ball took himself out, White stepped in and took the next play 30 yards for the score. A two-play, 66-yard drive, the Badgers needed just 50 seconds to score the game-changing touchdown.
“I don’t know if Montee would have went right back and had that same burst,” Bielema said. “That’s the part that [running backs coach John Settle] has done a nice job ingraining in the running backs. You need to be fresh to go, and obviously they’re doing that.”
WEST LAFAYETTE – Talk about taking advantage of what is given to you.
After spending the first two months of the season seeing his playing time severely limited due to the emergence of freshman James White, third-string running back Montee Ball has never stopped working to help his team.
It paid off in a big way Saturday at Purdue.
Ball reemerged as an important part of the Wisconsin offense when White went down with an injury at Iowa, scoring the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
His performance at Ross-Ade Stadium was even better.
“Montee knew pretty much all week it was going to be John and Montee,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “He was snapped in and just another example of great preparation by him.”
For the first time this season, Ball knew all week he would be the No. 2 option out of the backfield, a role he played well late in his freshman season.
When Saturday’s game rolled around, Ball simply went out and rushed for 127 yards on 21 carries and two big second-half touchdowns.
“I knew that the team was going to look for me to come in strong,” Ball said. “I wasn’t going to let them down.”
Early on, the Badgers went with a heavy dose of John Clay, with less than desirable results. When Clay got banged up during the course of the game, the load was all on Ball’s shoulders.
To say he responded well would be quite the understatement.
Ball finished the first half with just nine yards rushing on four carries, eight of which came on a single carry in the Badgers’ final drive of the second quarter. Over the final 25:32 of play, Ball ran for 118 yards on 17 carries, for an average of nearly seven yards per rush.
Midway through the third quarter, Ball helped the Badgers reel off a two-play, 51-yard, 38-second scoring drive. After a 20-yard pass to Nick Toon, Ball took the ball down the left sideline 31 yards for the score, diving for the pylon and giving UW some breathing room at 20-10.
“I just kept running behind the blocks, waiting for them to set up,” Ball said. “It was just there, so I just kind of leaped over them a little bit and reached the ball a little bit.”
Ball reeled off another run of 26 yards on the Badgers’ first drive of the fourth quarter before getting his second touchdown of the day when Wisconsin got the ball back for a second drive in the period.
Following Mike Taylor‘s impressive interception, Ball took the handoff twice, losing a yard on first down and finding a huge hole for his second touchdown of the day, this time from 15 yards out.
“He did a great job,” John Moffitt said of Ball. “The way he can step up, it’s so nice to have three backs that can do that. Running the football here is not easy, we put a lot of carries in your hands and it’s going to be tough, but Montee definitely stepped up.”
Ball found out just what it meant to be the Badgers’ every down back on the game’s final drive. Wisconsin ran 10 plays for 40 yards, eating up 5 minutes and 50 seconds off the clock.
Each of the 10 plays was a handoff to Ball.
“When you come here, the team’s going to put the load on your shoulders and you’ve got to be able to carry it,” Ball said. “That’s what I feel like I did. The O-line did a great job up front pushing them, and I just don’t want to let them down.”
MADISON – As stadiums go, Ross-Ade Stadium is never going to be mistaken for one of the great, historic venues in college football. Even so, Purdue has won 254 games there all-time against just 149 losses, including the Boilermakers’ 3-1 home record this year.
In fact, just last year Purdue knocked off then-No. 7 Ohio State at home, 26-18, in a stunning upset. That win came on the heels of a five-game losing streak for the Boilermakers, who have lost each of their last two games, on the road, in blowout fashion.
Add the Badgers’ recent success, and Wisconsin looks to be headed into a classic trap game.
“We’re well aware of it,” quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “I think the main thing is that it’s just another Big Ten game. You just look at last year, they knocked off Ohio State.
“Every year there seems to be that game where someone gets nipped from behind. We need to approach this game like any other game. The second you take your foot off the gas pedal and start relaxing, that’s when you start to get some adversity.”
Unfortunately for the Badgers, they don’t have any past experience to lean on against Purdue. While they shutout the Boilermakers last year, 37-0, the last time Wisconsin traveled to Purdue was in 2006, when Bret Bielema was a first-year head coach and UW’s current fifth-year seniors were in their redshirt seasons.
Junior defensive end J.J. Watt will be making his second appearance at Ross-Ade, having played there once in his career at Central Michigan.
As such, they’ll need to rely on their experiences in other Big Ten stadiums, rather than recall past games as Ross-Ade.
“I think anybody can beat anybody,” said John Moffitt, who redshirted in 2006. “You have to respect teams and you have to especially respect teams at home. I think we’re doing that with our preparation and we need to continue to do that.”
Not only has the team not played in West Lafayette in four years, they’ve also not made a bus trip as long as the one scheduled for this weekend. A 271-mile drive, the drive from Camp Randall to Ross-Ade is said to take five hours and six minutes, according to Google Maps.
On a bus, that easily translates to at least a six-hour drive. And that’s assuming the buses make it through the Chicago area without significant delay.
“That’s something that I don’t like at all,” free safety Aaron Henry said. “I understand we’ve got to do it, but six hours man, I can’t sit in a classroom for 50 minutes, let alone on a bus for six hours.
“It’s something we’ve got to do, so I don’t really have a choice in that, and we’ve just got to roll with it. I’m not really a big fan of bussing for six hours, though. Hopefully, if we take care of business, we won’t be bussing back.”
Confined to seat on the bus for the length of nearly two football games, the Badgers will need to find some ways to occupy their time. Homework, music, movies and sleep are among the most popular time-wasters for bus trips.
Of course, they’re typically more like three to four hours, such as is the case with the trip to Iowa City.
“I’m going to probably be doing a ton of things,” Henry said. “Probably on the phone listening to music, going over some of my notes, writing up some of my interests on the blog that I have. There’s no telling what I could be doing, man.
“Once you focus on one thing, that thing is going to die out eventually. And me, I’m always trying to find what’s new. But hopefully sleep will be my biggest friend on that trip.”
Running back John Clay had a simple answer to what could make the bus trip better for him.
“Having my own seat,” Clay said with a laugh. “If I can sit in the back and have my own seat, I’ll just be thinking about the plays that are going to get called and thinking about making a big play every time I get a chance.”
MADISON – It’s no secret that most Wisconsin fans would like to see running back John Clay play at less than his current weight. Sometimes, though, his 6-foot-1, 248-pound frame works to his advantage.
For instance, while it can be easy to find a speedy member of the scout team that will make guys miss, it’s a little tougher to replicate a guy of Clay’s size with the speed and running ability that he possesses.
A year ago, that translated into 24-carry, 123-yard, three-touchdown performance for Clay in the Badgers’ impressive 37-0 victory over Purdue. Just two weeks earlier, Purdue had limited Ohio State to just 66 yards on 28 carries as they knocked off the seventh-ranked Buckeyes.
“Just coming straight downhill,” Clay said of what worked for him against the Boilermakers. “They’re a spread team, so they’re used to seeing the spread in practice every day. Having our big guys up front and me coming downhill, I think it’s kind of hard for them to simulate that.”
Against two of the top defenses in the conference, Ohio State and Iowa, the Badgers’ No. 1 running back put up two of his most impressive performances of the season. Rushing a combined 45 times, Clay picked up 195 yards while reaching the end zone four times.
Having reestablished himself as the top option out of the backfield, and especially with James White coming back from injury, it would come as no surprise to see Clay get a significant majority of the carries Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind.
While White’s shifty, speedy style usually works as a good change of pace for Wisconsin, a heavy dose of the bigger, stronger Clay could be in the Badgers’ game plan this week.
Is Clay ready for a potentially increased workload this week?
“Yeah. You know, James is trying to come back from an injury, and I’m putting the bulk on my shoulders,” Clay said. “I got the rest I needed, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Clay missed some time during the Badgers’ 31-30 victory at Kinnick Stadium himself, which led to the opportunity for Montee Ball to stretch the ball across the goal line for the game-winning score in the fourth quarter.
Ten days removed from that physically and emotionally draining battle with the Hawkeyes, Clay said he’s ready to go against the Boilermakers. He did not, however, hesitate to acknowledge the importance of the bye week.
“It was some much needed time. Just getting my body back right and just giving us a chance to really get ready for Purdue,” Clay said. “I feel I’m about 100 percent. My ankles are good, that rest we had really helped a lot of people on the team that needed to rest to finish the season out strong.”
IOWA CITY — When talking about his football team, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema likes to say that it’s not what happens, but how you react to what happens. You can’t react much better than the Badgers did Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Two days before a pivotal Big Ten matchup with Iowa on the road, Bielema alluded to a number of veteran players that might not be able to go against the Hawkeyes. Come game time, Bielema and the Badgers found themselves without two key players: Nick Toon and Jordan Kohout.
“Brian [Lucas] hit me up early this morning and wanted to confirm the starting lineups, and I basically said ‘I wish I knew,'” Bielema said. “There was as much as seven of our starters that weren’t sure who was going to play or go or not.”
Even with all of that, the 10th-ranked Badgers came away with a 31-30 victory over the 12th-ranked Hawkeyes, putting themselves in excellent position in the Big Ten title race in the process.
“Iowa is a great team, and they had a great defensive four up front,” Gabe Carimi said. “We came out there and attacked it and got a ‘W’.”
With Kendricks out, tight ends Jacob Pedersen and Jake Byrne stepped up, grabbing four balls for a combined 42 yards. In place of Konz, the Badgers shuffled the offensive line without missing a beat, moving Bill Nagy from tight end to center.
But at no position was there a more impressive replacement than in the backfield.
Relegated to third on the depth chart with the emergence of White, sophomore Montee Ball‘s opportunities have been few and far between this season. But when called upon in a big moment, Ball reacted better than anyone could have expected.
“I stay ready and kept my mind right,” Ball said. “I’m very proud. I had a talk with [running backs] coach [John] Settle, and I told him that I was going to leave it in God’s hands. God has a plan for me and I just felt like it happened today.”
Carrying the ball three times, Ball picked up 18 crucial yards on the ground in the game. More importantly, he broke the plane of the goal line just enough for the game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
With the effort of those called upon to step up in critical situations, the Badgers were able to play the game the way they wanted to, which included a number of bold moves by the head coach.
Trailing 13-10 and facing 4th-and-1 on the Hawkeyes’ 2-yard line in the third quarter, the Badgers opted against the game-tying field goal. Instead, they went for it, and one of two Clay touchdown runs put them back on top, 17-13.
Later in the game, with UW trailing 30-24 late in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin got the look they were hoping to see from the Iowa defense on fourth down. The fake punt call was on, and punter Brad Nortman rushed for 17 yards, sending the momentum in the Badgers’ favor.
“It really did work out perfect,” Nortman said. “Our guys sold it perfectly and I went just about until I was about to drop the ball and it just all worked out perfectly. Once I saw it, I just knew we had the perfect play.”
Between the big games by replacements and bold moves in their play calling, the Badgers put together the most important reaction of the day. Following a program-defining victory over No. 1 Ohio State a week earlier, Wisconsin responded with another major win on the road over a Big Ten opponent.
Good teams pull off upsets at home, but it takes a great team to knock off a formidable opponent on the road.
“It was just four quarters of fanatical effort,” Bielema said. “Great individual efforts by some of our guys, but yet, unit efforts. Whether it be offense, defense or special teams, guys really had a tremendous amount of faith and executed.”