Coming into the 2010 season, John Clay was Wisconsin’s bona fide star.
He was the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year after leading the conference in rushing yards and touchdowns. He was the running back who dealt with some Heisman hype at the start of the season, the workhorse who was expected to carry the Badgers all year long.
But Clay wasn’t the one scoring touchdown after touchdown as UW rode its running game to a conference title.
No, Clay was watching his teammates pile up the points from the sideline while he nursed a knee injury.
Sophomore Montee Ball is now the team leader in touchdowns with 17. True freshman James White is the team leader in rushing yards with 1,029.
Clay is now looking up at those two backs on the depth chart.
And when the Badgers take the field for their first possession at the Rose Bowl Jan. 1, Ball is expected to trot out with the first-team offense.
“Right now, Montee would be our starting running back,” Bielema stated when he met with reporters Sunday. “John has to wait for a few other guys to get in. Montee’s playing as good of football as anybody. No question.”
Earlier in the year, Clay was the one playing as good of football as anybody.
In the days leading up to Wisconsin’s clash with then-No.1 ranked Ohio State, Clay and the Badgers were constantly reminded of an impressive streak. The Buckeyes came into Madison having gone 29 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
That streak ended that night Madison.
Clay put together one of his greatest performances, running for 104 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries against one of the best defenses in college football. He was explosive, he ran like a man with a purpose and the Badgers came away with a monumental 31-18 victory.
The very next week in Iowa City, Clay was ready for his encore.
Against one of the more talented defensive lines in the country, the 255-pound running back carried the ball a season-high 24 times and piled up 94 yards to go along with two trips to the endzone. He continuously fought through gang tackles and scored on a critical fourth-and-one conversion down in the red zone.
The Badgers needed every inch, winning the game 31-30.
Those were the two biggest wins of UW’s season. They were also Clay’s two best performances to date.
But after a bye week to rest up and get healthy for the stretch run, injury struck. Clay suffered a sprained knee that sidelined him against Purdue. The junior missed the next two games, and in his absence, Ball and White put on a show.
The two backup tailbacks ran for an astounding 665 yards and 11 touchdowns combined against Indiana and Michigan.
All of a sudden, Clay became a non-factor. UW continued to dominate without him.
Clay was healthy enough to return in the season finale against Northwestern, but he only saw four carries. Ball and White dominated, again leading UW to a 70-23 win that captured the Big Ten title.
Was it frustrating to watch his teammates close out the season from the sideline? You bet.
“It did get frustrating,” Clay said. “But I didn’t want to hinder the team with me not being 100 percent.”
Sophomore center Pete Konz has dealt with injuries throughout his career, and he can relate to what Clay went through down the stretch.
“You almost feel not a part of the success because your team is doing so well without you,” Konz explained. “It’s a hard feeling to shake off and you have to realize this is all about the team, it’s never about one person.”
Still, Clay’s individual performances earlier in the year haven’t been forgotten by his teammates.
They know how important he’s been to this team’s success.
“Not to belittle our accomplishments at the end of the year, but those are games we felt we should have won. Against tougher teams like OSU and Iowa, Johnny was always there to pick us up,” Konz said. “He’s always the one to say ‘Hey, I’m going to get these extra yards even if I have to go through two people’. That’s the kind of leadership you need that the younger backs are still developing.”
As UW prepares for TCU, Clay is preparing to make an impact when his team needs him most, in the Granddaddy of Them All.
The Horned Frogs bring the No.1 ranked defense to Pasadena, and TCU is allowing less than 90 yards per game on the ground.
TCU presents a daunting challenge, and running backs coach John Settle is glad to have his talented backfield back at full strength, with Clay doing his best to wear down TCU’s defensive front.
“The knee injury is healed up, he’s been doing some extra work after practice and to get him back with the physicality he plays with will only help us,” Settle said. “I have no doubt that he will show up on one of the biggest stages he’s ever played on.”
Clay is planning to do just that.
“I’m feeling really good and I’m anxious to get back out there,” Clay said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been out in the huddle with the guys, grinding the ball out and playing our kind of football.”
Clay has been waiting patiently for his chance to help his team, and now that opportunity comes at the Rose Bowl against college football’s top statistical defense.
The stage is set for UW’s star running back to once again shine in the spotlight.
“I’m looking forward to challenge. You live for these moments,” Clay said. “A game with this kind of environment and everybody is going to be watching us… I’m just really looking forward to showing everyone what I can do.”