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Has Wisconsin Finally Hit Peak Running Back?

A steady supply of dominant rushers has powered Wisconsin's half-decade of Big Ten dominance, but the Badgers' current backfield lacks much-needed explosiveness.
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin has been the Big Ten's most consistent team since the turn of the decade, regularly churning out seasons of nine wins or more while landing in three conference championship games and three BCS bowls. Behind it all has been an incomprehensibly deep stable of running backs, with the Badgers boasting a Heisman Trophy-caliber rusher almost every year.

Wisconsin has had at least one 1,000-yard back every year since 2010—some seasons, the Badgers have had two—including some names you probably remember, from John Clay to James White, Montee Ball to Melvin Gordon.


It appeared that the trend would continue this season. Corey Clement, who rushed for 949 yards last season as Gordon's backup—yep, that's 949 yards, with 6.46 yards per carry, and he wasn't a starter!—looked like the next runner in line. And even if Clement hadn't compiled impressive numbers, it was fair to assume he'd be amazing anyway, because he's a Wisconsin running back and that's just what happens with Wisconsin running backs.

Until now, that is.

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So far this season, the Badgers' running game hasn't been producing at its usual levels. At least not when it matters most. Wisconsin is far from awful on the ground—the Badgers rank 13th nationally according to advanced stats. But dig deeper. Against big-time opponents, Wisconsin has gotten nowhere on the ground.

Unsurprisingly, Wisconsin dominated Miami (OH), Troy and Hawaii, but lost to both Alabama and Iowa. If the Badgers' running game is working, the team works, too. But if it sputters, then Wisconsin is decidedly average.

Against quality opponents like Alabama, Wisconsin's running game has featured too much of this. --Photo by Tm Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Is the problem the offensive line? Is there simply nowhere for Clement—who has been injured and likely is out 2-4 more weeks—and understudy Taiwan Deal to run? It doesn't seem like it. Consider the following comparison between Wisconsin's 2014 and 2015 rushing stats, courtesy of the outstanding Bill Connelly at SB Nation and Football Outsiders:

The Badgers are still getting a good push along the line of scrimmage, and they're able to grind out successful plays on offense pretty well—in fact, they're performing better than last year. Wisconsin runs a successful rushing play—defined as 50 percent of first down yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down and 100 percent on third down—about half the time it runs the ball.


The problem comes after that initial push.

Last year's workhorse, Gordon, was seen as a strong, bruising back, but he had deceptive speed and was able to get to the edge often, running for big gains. He made Wisconsin's ground game explosive. Without him, the Badgers have fallen 120 spots in rushing explosiveness. That's an almost inconceivable drop.

Where have you gone, Melvin Gordon? --Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

More on the much-missed Gordon: he was fourth in the nation in highlight yards per opportunity, defined as any additional yards on plays that gain at least five yards. Those are the plays in which the offensive line has done its job, and it's up to the running back to showcase his skills. Again, a comparison between last season and this one illustrates the root of Wisconsin's problem:

The good news? Deal and Ogunbowale are getting about the same percentage of highlight opportunities that Gordon and Clement were getting last season. The bad news? They haven't proven they can be anywhere close to as explosive or effective. Overall, the Badgers' running backs aren't putting up numbers at all like they were last season, and that's concerning for a team that—save for long-gone Russell Wilson—has mostly relied on game managers behind center.

Of course, the wild card is Clement. He's no Gordon—granted, nobody is Gordon—but he had impressive highlight yard numbers last season. The optimistic assessment of his 2015 production drop-off is that he didn't get many chances against a dominant Alabama defense, and that he just needs to get into a rhythm once he returns from injury. That could happen. If it doesn't, Wisconsin is going to have a lot of trouble repeating its past success in the Big Ten West. The Badgers have a proven formula for success, but the supply of their key ingredient— dominant running backs—may not be limitless, after all.