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Wisconsin’s running game explodes in overwhelming victory

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A staple of the Badgers’ offense showed up big time on Saturday.

Illinois v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

MADISON — Ever since a seven-point loss to Michigan on Oct. 1 -- a game where only 159 total yards were gained — the Wisconsin Badgers have built a steady foundation of rushing performances.

Starting against then-No. 2 Ohio State two weeks later after a bye week, UW’s output in the run game has improved substantially. With injuries to the offensive line and running backs now subsiding from those sustained earlier this season, they’ve accumulated over 200 yards in three of the past five games — four if you don’t count the Badgers’ last offensive series against Northwestern last week.

On Saturday, No. 7 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) finished with a season-high 363 rushing yards, the most since Paul Chryst took over the program as head coach, en route to a 48-3 win over Illinois. With that, the Badgers may have also solidified not just two, but three legitimate running threats.

“It was a good day on the ground, big time,” running back Dare Ogunbowale said. “We always talk about how the big days come when the wide receivers get involved in the run game and block it up. They were doing a great job of that. Offensive line and tight ends were putting us in one-on-ones, and the running backs running them. It was great.”

Wisconsin gained 5.7 yards per carry against Illinois, and saw a pair of backs go over the century mark on the ground. With the 123 and 103 yards gained by senior running backs Corey Clement and Ogunbowale, respectively, it was the first time since the 2015 Outback Bowl where two Badgers eclipsed the 100-yard mark (Melvin Gordon had 215; Clement with 105).

Add in a solid outing from redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw, and there’s a great potential for a trio of woe for opponents to defender out of Wisconsin’s backfield.

“I think it feels great to have three guys who can go in there and run with confidence and be confident in themselves. I think it’s been great,” redshirt sophomore center Michael Deiter said. “I think they’ve all run really well. They’re making us look good at times, which is really encouraging. We just need to keep it up.”

In the first half alone, the Badgers ran for 171 yards on 31 carries (5.5 yards per carry). One-hundred nineteen of those came in the first quarter on 15 carries, which contributed to an early 21-3 lead. That included a big 23-yard run by Clement, with 48 and 17-yard dashes by Ogunbowale sprinkled in. Each of those explosive plays were on drives that ended with touchdowns.

"Especially for that, it gives the wide receivers a chance to get touches, as well,” Clement said on the impressive first quarter play, echoing Ogunbowale’s sentiments. “Those guys deserve it, too. They're always blocking. We need to get those guys another chance to put points on the board, as well. Whatever we can do as an offense, especially the running game, I'm all for it and we can really just keep calling our running backs' numbers. We're always ready to get our number called."

Clement is clearly the workhorse of the rushing attack in 2016, and against Illinois it was no different. He carried the ball 25 times on the day with UW utilizing him in the backfield and splitting him out as a pseudo-wide receiver on jet sweep looks. All three of his touchdowns came in short yardage from two, four and two yards out.

“Who wouldn't want these types of games where you can close out a game and not have to worry about running a two-minute offense to try to get a quick score?” Clement said, when asked if Wisconsin need a demonstrative win seen against Illinois. “It gives us some breathing room and more confidence as we close out the regular season."

Though Clement may carry the rock substantially — he’s carried the ball on 218 of the team’s 468 carries in 10 games — Ogunbowale and Shaw’s contributions show the success on the ground is a team effort. The former, a team captain and former walk-on who started his career as a cornerback, thrived again with his role in 11 (three wide receiver) personnel, gaining 103 yards on only seven carries against Illinois.

Ogunbowale displays an uncanny ability to make defenders miss with his agile cuts, and the use of draws and a stretch-like run with offensive linemen pulling over the past few games offers a different dynamic from other plays.

“I guess just earlier in the season, I suppose, me being so involved in so many passes, they’ve been expecting that,” Ogunbowale said when asked what makes those set of plays work so well. “Now, I’m able to run the ball. It’s been good for us.”

On the season, Ogunbowale has gained 453 yards, including two games in which he broke the century mark. The former Milwaukee Marquette standout may not be the primary back as seen last year, but his role on and off the field is recognized and respected by many.

“I thought that he ran with a real purpose today, but the number of things that he does that aren’t on a stat sheet and what he brings to this team — it’s huge,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I appreciate being around him and getting to know him, and he’s one of the guys that makes us all better.”

Shaw — the highly-touted prep running back out of Hoover, Ala. — also contributed 80 yards on 19 carries on the afternoon, a sign of growing confidence of the coaching staff in him. He earned his first career start on Saturday, with Clement split out wide on Wisconsin’s opening series in that jet sweep formation.

Thirty-eight of those yards came on UW’s 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Shaw’s three-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to cap the scoring on the game.

In the past three games, he’s rushed for 157 yards on 32 carries with two touchdowns and worked his way onto the depth chart as co-No. 2 running back with Ogunbowale. In the past two contests, he’s carried the ball at least 11 times.

“It’s great,” Shaw said when asked about being a big contributor. “Everybody has a role on the team. Before the season, I didn’t really know what my role would be — so when Corey gets banged up, they put me in and they want me to do work and compete with all the other guys.”

Success running the ball on Saturday translated positively to other facets of the offense, most notably UW’s red zone efficiency. The Badgers converted on all eight of their opportunities’ inside of Illinois’ 20-yard line, with six touchdowns to their credit.

It was certainly improvement from a team entering the game 114th in the nation in that category.

"I think it was determination as far as everybody,” Clement said. “When you look at our stats, our red zone efficiency wasn't where we wanted it to be. I just think, going into the game, we had to close out drives in the proper way and not settle for three points. You'd rather have seven, feeling confident coming into the next drive, waiting for the defense to get another stop and continue to put points on the board, especially in the red zone."

Eighteen of UW’s 23 first downs were gained on the ground, and the Badgers closed out the game running the ball on 29 on their final 30 offensive plays from scrimmage. Wisconsin held on to the ball for a season-best 42:03, the third time in 2016 the team’s gone beyond the 40-minute mark in time of possession. Redshirt sophomore Taiwan Deal even made the most of his opportunities with the second-team offense, gaining 41 yards on six carries late in the game.

A blowout win showcased the strides the running game has made, and it could only be the beginning for what’s a critical stretch for the Badgers in their quest for a Big Ten West division title.

"We're enjoying the journey that we're on,” Clement said. “We call these chapters. Now, we close this chapter out and we continue to write the next one coming out to practice Monday. I couldn't be happier with the guys that put the production out on the field and put the effort all out there every day in practice, especially in the film room."