For the Wisconsin Badgers, 100-yard efforts on the ground are expected each and every Saturday.
The combination of talented running backs and a proud tradition of offensive linemen has made the ground game a fixture of UW’s identity.
But this Saturday, when Ohio State comes to Madison, the Badgers will meet a team that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 29 games.
“It’s our strength versus their strength,” sophomore center Pete Konz said.
Is it ever.
Now, Wisconsin knows first hand just how tough this OSU run defense can be. In 2008, starting running back P.J. Hill racked up just 63 yards on 16 carries, and in 2009, John Clay ran for just 59 yards on 20 carries. His longest carry of the day was for eight yards.
That’s not exactly the type of production the Badgers expect on the ground, and it’s one of the reasons UW’s offense has been so ineffective recently against the Buckeyes.
Without a strong running game, the pressure falls to the Wisconsin passing attack, and that hasn’t been a formula for success. With little help on the ground in 2008, quarterback Allan Evridge was just 13-for-25 and only managed 147 yards through the air. In 2009, Scott Tolzien was forced to throw 45 times and he tossed two costly interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in the process.
So, the Badgers know they need to run the ball to be successful. Now they need to execute that gameplan against the No. 1 team in the country.
“It’s something we need to prove,” Konz said of running the ball against OSU.
To do that, Wisconsin is going to need a tremendous effort from their highly regarded offensive line, as they’ll be going head-to-head with one of the most dominant defensive fronts in the country.
While OSU’s defense line has all the physical tools, Konz insists it’s the coaching that makes the Buckeye line so effective.
“They are athletic and strong, but they also have great coaching, and you cannot look past that,” Konz said. “A lot of programs, even some of the lower Big Ten, have great talent, but Ohio State has great coaching. That’s just a deadly combination.”
That deadly combination has led to the development of one player in particular – senior defensive end Cameron Heyward.
All eyes will be on the 6-foot-5, 288-pound star lineman who victimized senior captain John Moffitt a year ago.
“It was just terrible technique. I pretty much did everything wrong, and you get exposed against a good player like him,” Moffitt said, recalling last year’s meeting with Heyward. “It was just bad, but you got to move on and have a short memory.”
Heyward was constantly in the Badger backfield last year, busting up plays before they ever had a chance. Tolzien felt pressure from everywhere and was sacked six times.
This year, Heyward, who lines up at both end and tackle, is even better, and fellow linemen Nathan Williams, John Simon and Dexter Larimore have continued OSU’s proud D-line tradition.
But Moffitt is looking forward to getting another crack at Heyward.
“He’s a pretty good player, but that’s what’s exciting about it. I’m sure he’s better than last year; that’s what good players do,” Moffitt said. “I think I’m better than last year too.”
The offensive line is just one aspect of a two-part equation for success. UW’s maulers up front will be busy handling the dirty work, but it’s the Badger running backs who have to make plays when the opportunities arise.
UW running backs coach John Settle has a simple message for his players this week: trust the offensive linemen.
“I want them to trust the scheme and trust the guys in front of them,” Settle said. “We have to execute our reads, be patient and allow those guys to go work for us.”
Settle will count on Clay and freshman James White to step up and play their best games to date.
Clay, the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, has had a strong start to the 2010 season with nine touchdowns and 699 total rushing yards, but the UW coaching staff wants to see Clay fight through the ankle tackles that have halted potential big plays.
Big play opportunities against Ohio State could be few and far between, and Clay will need to take advantage when he gets into the open field.
“We know people are going to hit him low and he’s got to expect that and get his pad level down and accelerate on contact,” Settle said.”We need him to keep his feet moving.”
White has burst onto the scene in his first collegiate season, and the Badgers will need another strong showing from the Florida native.
UW will rely on White to provide a change of pace and stretch the defense, but Settle knows the Buckeyes will be ready and waiting when No. 20 checks into the game.
“He’s not going to sneak up on anybody; they’re going to watch the film like everybody else and they’ll have a gameplan for when he’s in the game,” Settle said. “But right now, John and James are one of the best one-two punches in the country, and we’re going to need them both to compete on Saturday.”
The last time UW beat the Buckeyes was back in 2004, and to do it again, Clay knows the Badgers need to find success on the ground.
He believes his team is more than capable of doing just that.
“We got the best O-line in the country, and I’m not afraid to say that,” Clay said. “We know what kind of team we are. We need to run the ball.
“We are ready to show people what we can do up front.”