At halftime of Saturday’s 34-13 win over Purdue, what were you thinking? Remember, the Badgers – now fortunate to have moved up to No. 7 in the BCS rankings – were down 10-6 at the time.
Personally, I was thinking that I really need to start picking better away games to travel for. I passed on Las Vegas and UNLV Week One. Week Five, I traveled to East Lansing for Michigan State. I skipped Iowa, but went to Purdue Saturday.
So after two quarters against the Boilermakers, I was convinced I was either terrible at selecting away games, or I was some sort of harbinger of misfortune for UW.
Yet, as the Badgers’ effort Saturday picked up in the second half, so did my away record, to 2-1. As sluggish as Wisconsin looked in the first half in West Lafayette, it was equally impressive in the second half. The defense – with three second half interceptions – was a very significant reason, but the most important one was the depth of the Badgers’ roster.
In fact, Wisconsin’s depth seems to be shaping up as the story of its season.
Yes, the second half defense really was stellar, but first, don’t forget what happened on the offensive side of the ball. In a season where the offense has had a different hero each phase of the schedule – first it was Lance Kendricks, then it was James White and John Clay – Montee Ball has become the latest Badger of the moment. The latest, but not for the first time.
Remember, the now third-string sophomore running back was Wisconsin’s second leading rusher last year. Ball emerged in early October, debuting Oct. 3 against Minnesota. Ultimately, he appeared in nine games in 2009, rushing for 391 yards and four touchdowns. Ball also had nine receptions for 92 yards.
This year, after putting on weight to add more power, the do-it-all back seemed solidified as the No. 2 back behind Clay. Yet, White materialized as this year’s freshman running back sensation and leapfrogged Ball on the depth chart in Week Four for the Austin Peay game. Playing in eight of the Badgers’ nine games this year, White has rushed for 570 yards and nine touchdowns on 86 carries – 6.6 yards per – and hauled in eight passes for 64 yards.
However, White suffered a knee injury in Wisconsin’s heart-stopping win over Iowa Oct. 23, left the game early and did not play after the bye at Purdue. So again, it was an opportunity for Ball, who didn’t disappoint with 127 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries (6.0 yards per).
What’s significant about Ball’s ability to make the most out of any given opportunity isn’t just that he’s capable of filling in when called upon. Rather, it’s the fact that he gives Bret Bielema, his staff and the rest of the team confidence not only in him, but in his position, as well. This season, Clay – coming off of offseason ankle surgeries – has been nicked up here and there. Then, White went down.
But was there ever really any panic? Yes, these are the Wisconsin Badgers, and they can always run the ball. But still, losing two top running backs has derailed plenty of teams’ seasons in the past. In today’s college football landscape, full of countless different spread offenses and tricky formations, running the ball is still placed at a premium.
When White went down, it was just “next man in” for the Badgers. Give Bielema a lot of credit for that – after all, it’s really his phrase. However, if a third-string running back less capable than Ball was the next man in on UW’s depth chart, would that philosophy still be easy to buy into?
These Badgers understand the distinction between theory and practice, and that’s why “next man in” is more than just fodder for another motivational locker room poster, more than just the latest entry on the never-ending list of coach-speak clich?s.
After nine games, Wisconsin is significantly banged up – as essentially all football teams are at this point in the season. Despite saying he had no doubts about playing against Indiana this weekend after Saturday’s game, Clay is now questionable with a “slight” MCL sprain. White should be back, but that’s far from certain. If he’s not available, it’s the Montee Ball Show again. If he is, though, White and Ball will form a terrific running back tandem.
Also injured against the Boilermakers was center Peter Konz. After the game, Konz was seen walking to the locker room on crutches, appearing to favor his right ankle in significant pain. Indeed, Bielema said his center aggravated an old injury, and he seems likely to miss Saturday’s game. If Konz can’t go, backup right guard Bill Nagy will step in. Nagy has filled in spots throughout the Badgers’ lineup in 2010, including center, guard and tight end.
“Billy’s been exceptional,” Bielema said in his Monday press conference. “It’s been nice to be able to move him in there. We know John Moffitt can do that, but I’d rather just interrupt one position rather than multiple.”
Even at the end of that quote, Wisconsin’s depth surfaces for a quick reminder. The Badgers also received another against Purdue, as receiver Jared Abbrederis caught a seven-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone with 11:49 remaining in the third quarter. The score put UW ahead 13-10, and the lead would not be relinquished for the duration of the game. Also, it was Abbrederis who stepped up – as a punt returner – after David Gilreath was knocked out of the Sept. 11 San Jose State game with a nasty concussion.
On a team largely devoid of any superstars – the case could be made for defensive end J.J. Watt – the number of injuries Wisconsin has suffered would typically be crippling. Yet, there really hasn’t been any sense of panic in Madison. Perhaps most remarkable is that linebacker Chris Borland, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year who only played two games this season before being shut down with a shoulder injury, has largely been forgotten. Credit Blake Sorensen, Culmer St. Jean and Mike Taylor for that.
Also recognize Bielema’s “next man in” mantra and the Badgers’ depth. Role players and backups on the Badgers aren’t just filling in – they’re proving that they can be counted on, and they’re providing the confidence that separates BCS contenders from BCS hopefuls.
Mike is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. How impressed are you by Wisconsin’s depth? Let him know at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @mikefiammetta.