No. 23 Wisconsin seeks to build traction in running game
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin has finally gained some traction in the running game.
The extra practices for the 23rd-ranked Badgers ahead of the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30 could be just as important as a springboard for the 2016 season.
Beating Southern California in the bowl game in San Diego would give the Badgers (9-3) a signature win in Paul Chryst’s first season as coach.
But regardless of what happens next week, the extra practices also give junior running back Dare Ogunbowale and a young offensive line shuffled by numerous injuries some critical extra time to jell for next year.
“It will be huge to actually get to practice with the same five” during bowl prep, said center Michael Dieter, a redshirt freshman. “It’s all about quality reps ... and keeping that run game going.”
The Badgers saved their best day on the ground in Big Ten play for the season finale, rushing for 257 yards on 62 attempts in a 31-21 win over Minnesota on Nov. 28.
Running the ball historically hasn’t been a problem at Wisconsin, which churns out 1,000-yard backs like an assembly line. Melvin Gordon, Montee Ball and Ron Dayne are among the college stars who carried the ball at Camp Randall Stadium.
But the ground game sputtered this season. Injuries have been a major concern.
The Badgers’ normally pushy offensive line was slowed by a revolving door of players on the right side early in the season. One of Wisconsin’s best linemen, center Dan Voltz, was lost for the year in late October with a knee injury.
The battered Badgers got a confidence boost on the ground at Minnesota, even if the Golden Gophers were 11th in the 14-team Big Ten in yielding 171.6 yards rushing per game.
“It was good to get something going, that’s what we couldn’t do as an offensive line,” said left tackle Tyler Marz, the only senior up front. “We just need to kind of carry that momentum over. It comes down to these practices.”
Running back Corey Clement also can use the preparation time for the bowl to get back on track after being sidelined by sports hernia surgery and, later, an off-field issue.
Clement was supposed to take over the starring role in the backfield from Gordon. Instead, Ogunbowale, a former defensive back, became the lead tailback.
The junior had a season high against Minnesota with 155 yards on 33 carries.
A heady player, Ogunbowale is still learning.
“Running back is a position where experience means as much as anything,” he said. “When you get game reps and experience like that in games, that means a lot.”
Ogunbowale said he is more patient and more comfortable with the ball.
“Trying to be as versatile as possible, making different types of runs ... protections. I feel like there’s an improvement that happens every day,” he said.
Clement is expected to return next season, while second-leading rusher Taiwan Deal is a redshirt freshman. With so many pieces expected to return up front and in the backfield, a running game that struggled this year might return to form in 2016.
Bowl practices will give the Badgers a head start.
“It’s just a whole lot of good work for weeks,” Dieter said. “Going into spring ball, it makes a difference.”
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