In the waning moments of Wisconsin's clash with Fresno State last Saturday, many Badger fans had a troublesome question on their mind: Where has John Clay been? Then, as if he were answering the prayers of the Camp Randall faithful, Clay burst through the line and ran 72 yards to the end zone to give the Badgers their first lead of the game.
Wisconsin used the momentum from the 72-yard run to secure victory in overtime and improve to 2-0. When all was said and done, the re-emergence of the 6-foot-2-inch Clay was certainly a high point of the day.
It is no secret the Badgers are known throughout the Big Ten as a team that lives and dies by the run. However, Wisconsin's 2009 season thus far has appeared to move away from the traditional ""run between the tackles"" style of play and toward a more balanced offensive attack. Even when the running game has failed to produce, Wisconsin has still managed to put points on the board.
Quarterbacks junior Scott Tolzien and freshman Curt Phillips have combined to complete two-thirds of their passes and throw for 506 yards so far in 2009. Those stats are not nationally recognizable by any stretch of the imagination, but they are still an improvement from 2008. The Badgers completed just 54.1 percent of their passes in 2008 and had accumulated just 554 through their first three games last year.
An enormous reason the Badgers have had success through the air so far is their veteran receiving core that returns five of the top six receivers from the 2008 squad. Junior receiver Isaac Anderson has shown great strides in his development through the first two games. After producing only 286 receiving yards in 2008, he leads the team in 2009 with 170. Senior tight end Garrett Graham, the Badgers' leading receiver in 2008, has nine receptions on the year for a total of 131 yards.
The improvement in the passing game may seem marginal at first glance, but consider that Wisconsin, a run first team, should eventually be able to use their upgraded passing game to force opposing defenses into devoting more personnel to account for the potential of the pass. According to junior running back Zach Brown, defenses this season have not yet begun to recognize the Wisconsin passing game as a credible threat. ""Defenses are really respecting our running game right now, especially in that first game. [Northern Illinois] came out and crowded that box,"" Brown said.
Northern Illinois' emphasis on stopping the Wisconsin run proved efficient as they held the Badgers to a mere 152 yards on the ground. However, NIU paid a hefty price for stopping Clay and Brown, as Tolzien and Phillips combined for 281 passing yards.
There is no doubt that a dual threat offense is necessary if Wisconsin is going to produce big numbers offensively in Big Ten play. ""You're going to need everything in the Big Ten,"" Brown said. ""When it comes down to it, we have to be able to run and pass.""
In the Badgers' six losses in 2008, the passing game averaged a miserable 178.3 yards per game. Wisconsin quarterbacks only completed 50.3 percent of their passes and threw for just four touchdowns compared to eight interceptions in those losses.
If opposing defenses continue to view Wisconsin as a one-dimensional offense, the Badgers must to continue to look toward the passing game for offensive production. However, if teams begin to respect the threat of the Wisconsin receiving corps, then Zach Brown and John Clay should put up big numbers as a result of facing less aggressive defensive fronts.
The Badgers should put up big offensive numbers this weekend as they welcome Football Championship Subdivision member Wofford College to Madison. When Michigan State travels to Camp Randall the following weekend, the Badgers' offense will face its toughest defensive test to date. It will be then that Wisconsin will know whether or not its passing game has gained legitimate recognition around the Big Ten.