MADISON -- With the news of junior Corey Clement sidelined for the next four to six weeks after sports hernia surgery, Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal knew they would need to carry the load of the carries for the bulk of the conference season and the non-conference finale. On top of that, the Badgers needed to continue to improve a running game drastically different in results from last year's squad that rushed for over 4,000 yards.
Saturday night was another positive step. Unveiling a new personnel and formation utilizing two fullbacks in the backfield with either Ogunbowale and Deal behind them, the No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers rushed for a season-high 326 yards in a 28-0 win against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors under the lights of Camp Randall Stadium.
Deal and Ogunbowale combined for 232 yards rushing on the evening at a 5.7 yards per carry clip, with Deal leading the Badgers with 147 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns. It was a confidence builder for the Badgers' running backs and offensive line that's had to rebuild amidst injuries.
"Just to show that we can are a good running team, as much as people say that we aren't," Ogunbowale -- who rushed for 85 yards on 15 carries -- said after the game. "We can still pound the ball just like we have here in the past and this o-line hasn't taken a step downward."
It was also another impressive performance by Wisconsin's defense. Though at times Hawaii gained some yardage on big plays -- completing passes of 51, 27 and 25 yards during the game -- the Badgers tightened when needed. The Badgers gave up only 255 yards total for the second consecutive week while tallying three sacks and nine pass break-ups.
"I think it just means we're taking steps in the right direction," senior outside linebacker Joe Schobert said.
"There's still a lot of things to iron out on defense, but again, we allowed some big plays. But, we were able to battle back and push them back and take long field goals, three-and-outs to get them off the field, stuff like that. I feel like we're building in the right direction going into conference play."
More importantly, the Badgers stymied their opponent for the third straight week. In that time, the Wisconsin defense has allowed only three points in three games -- with two shutouts against Miami (Ohio) and now Hawaii.
"It means we've been good the last couple games," Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said when asked what that statistic means for the defense and its direction. "That's what I love about sports is that you have to go do it again. I think that we've got some good players on that defense and some great leaders, and we've still got room for growth. And they know that and that's what I like about the group."
The Badgers held the Rainbow Warriors in their first offensive series of the game after sacks by outside linebackers Schobert and Vince Biegel -- but were placed deep in their own territory at their own three-yard line after a 58-yard punt. Utilizing the two fullback personnel in the backfield along with a single tailback, Wisconsin drove 97 yards in 16 plays -- capped by a 2-yard touchdown by Deal to put the Badgers up 7-0 in the first quarter. That drive alone, Deal carried the ball nine times for 56 yards.
"It's a nice formation," Ogunbowale said of the new personnel look. "It gives the defense a lot of things to think about."
Hawaii and Wisconsin traded punts for the majority of the first half thereafter until 5:16 of the second quarter. Stave and the offense continue their dominance at the end of the first half, driving 73 yards in nine plays, ending with yet another Deal touchdown to make it 14-0. The Badgers balanced their offense on that drive, as Stave -- who finished the game 14-of-23 for 164 yards and a touchdown pass -- completed all four passes on that drive for 40 yards. Deal, behind that offensive line, barreled in from two yards. In the past three games, Wisconsin's scored 24 points in their drives (which includes the final two drives against Miami University two weeks ago) to end the first half.
The Warriors pulled out a bag of tricks in the third quarter with a wide receiver option throw. Junior wide receiver Makoa Camanse-Stevens completed a 51-yard pass to junior running back Paul Harris down to Wisconsin's 13-yard.
From there, a combination of Wisconsin stops and Hawaii mistakes squashed any hopes of a score. The Warriors actually came within a yard of Wisconsin's goal line, but a personal foul on Dejon Allen pushed the offense back to the Badgers 16-yard line. A Schobert sack -- his second of the game and sixth of the season already -- along with a holding penalty on Allen pushed Hawaii back to the 31-yard line. Junior Rigoberto Sanchez missed a 49-yard field goal, and the shutout was preserved.
Holding three opponents to zero touchdowns in three consecutive games is impressive, but players echoed their coach's assessment after the game.
"I think we have a great defense," redshirt senior wide receiver/safety Tanner McEvoy said, "we just have to keep their offense off the field. This week they still got a few third down conversions just like last week, so we have to be able to get them off the field on that down."
From there, the Badgers added two scores on the back of some long drives. Driving 80 yards in 11 plays that took up 5:40 of the third quarter, Stave hit redshirt senior Austin Traylor for a 12-yard touchdown pass down the seam to make it 21-0.
All four scoring drives were 65 yards or greater for the Badgers, as the drive immediately after Traylor's touchdown pass, Wisconsin drove 67 yards in another eight plays. Operating out of mostly two-fullback or two tight end sets, the Badgers drove down the field in just over four minutes. Deal and Ogunbowale both thrived on that drive out of the potent 31 personnel, inverted wishbone formation. Deal gained 24 yards on four carries on that drive in total, while Ogunbowale -- the converted cornerback -- took the ball around the right end for a nine-yard touchdown and a 28-0 lead.
"We've definitely taken strides," Ogunbowale said, when asked about their progression from the start of the season to Saturday night.
"More confidence, I feel that's the biggest thing for myself and Taiwan, being young running backs -- young so to speak. Just a lot of confidence and getting the carries built our confidence. You saw that was evident with Taiwan today, and there's still some things that he can work on from that -- same with myself. That's the biggest thing is building confidence and getting the amount of carries that we have."
The running game certainly progressed from its first game of the season against a stout Alabama defense, but will need to continue its growth against a more physical Big Ten opponent in the Hawkeyes.
Are the Badgers prepared for conference play to start?
"Ready or not, here it comes," Chryst said to end his press conference.