The Wisconsin Badgers' offensive attack took a significant hit on Thursday when it was announced that junior running back Corey Clement would undergo surgery to repair a lingering sports hernia injury.
After he was limited to 16 yards on eight carries against Alabama on Sept. 5 -- Clement suffered the injury earlier during that week -- he hasn't played in wins against Miami (Ohio) and Troy. Needless to say, it hasn't been the 2015 season many envisioned the budding star having.
"I feel bad for Corey that this is impacting his season because I know how hard he works and how important this football team is to him," Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said in a statement from the Wisconsin athletic department. "We are very confident that he will make a full recovery after the surgery and I know he will attack his rehab so he can get back on the field as soon as he can."
Now with Clement out four to six weeks, the Badgers must finish their non-conference schedule against Hawaii and begin their Big Ten conference schedule with an offense that was still piecing together a stable rushing attack even before Thursday's news.
Below are the main takeaways from Clement's injury announcement.
Dare Ogunbowale, Taiwan Deal must progress heading into conference play
Clement, during Big Ten media days in late July, said his goal was to rush for 2,000 yards this season. That won't happen now, but Wisconsin's No. 2 and No. 3 running backs must assert themselves and build upon their performances in the past two games against the RedHawks and Trojans.
"I thought we ran the ball a little bit more consistently," Chryst said Monday during his weekly press conference. "I thought the backs, Dare and Taiwan were more patient, and there are a lot of areas I think we can get better at and that also, I like that as a coach."
Chryst also addressed reporters on Thursday.
Ogunbowale, a former walk-on and one-time cornerback, leads the team in rushing with 198 yards on 33 carries (5.9 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. Considering he's only a full year into playing a position he last suited up for back in adolescence, the redshirt junior and Milwaukee native has learned Chryst's pro-style offense quickly and even earned praise from former Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon last season. He's also a threat out of the backfield in the passing game, currently third on the team with 10 receptions.
Deal, a redshirt freshman, progressed nicely in the past two weeks and will have to continue to be the punishing bruiser he's shown he can be. Against Troy, the 6'1, 220-pound Deal rushed for 84 yards on 16 carries in an overall better effort by a Wisconsin running game gaining 199 yards against the Trojans. He's been key in short-yardage situations, converting on third downs to move the chains behind the ever-evolving Badgers offensive line.
The two backs don't need to duplicate the numbers Clement projected for the offense to be successful, but like the offensive line, their progressions and development under the tutelage of running backs coach John Settle must continue to help complement the Badgers' passing game.
Joel Stave, passing game must continue to carry the offense
Last season, the running game contributed over 68 percent of the Badgers' total offense. In 2015, a rejuvenated passing game -- coupled with the injury to Clement and that rebuilding offensive line still gaining its collective footing -- has contributed 61.9 percent of the offense (693 of 1,120 yards) over the first three games of the season. With Clement out at least until the Rutgers game on Oct. 31, the Badgers will have to lean on Stave even more.
Stave has completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 666 yards and six touchdowns with only two interceptions this season. The former walk-on has passed for 200 yards in three straight games, something a Wisconsin quarterback hasn't done since Stave himself threw for 210 yards against UTEP, 214 yards at Nebraska and 254 yards against Illinois in 2012.
He'll have to continue the trend while Clement is sidelined, and the passing game will have to quite possibly contribute even more against more physical teams during conference play. Twelve Badgers have already caught passes this year with wide receivers Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright, along with Ogunbowale, leading the way. Redshirt senior tight end Austin Traylor has become a reliable target early as well, with six catches for 98 yards and two touchdown receptions. Hawaii should be an interesting test with a reliable secondary and physical defense.
The quest for a second straight Big Ten West title becomes harder, but is still attainable
The Big Ten East is front-loaded with Ohio State and Michigan State sitting Nos. 1 and 2 in the AP Top 25, but the West is a free-for-all with teams talented but all having a flaw that could keep them from grabbing the crown.
After Hawaii, Wisconsin starts conference play against an improved Iowa team that holds wins over Iowa State and Pit, and then heads to Lincoln to face a Nebraska team currently 1-2 and allowing451 yards per game. The Badgers then face Purdue, Illinois, Rutgers and Maryland -- all very winnable games judging by their starts to the 2015 season.
If Wisconsin can lean on Stave, the running backs and a stout defense that hasn't allowed a touchdown in eight quarters, the Badgers should still be the favorites to win the West. Then, if Clement returns healthy after Wisconsin's bye week against a Northwestern team that's already defeated Duke and Stanford, the Badgers' offense could be supercharged for the home stretch.