John Clay has a message for the pundits who claim that adding over 20 pounds this offseason diminished his breakaway speed.
""They think I put a little weight on, that I'm not explosive anymore, that I don't have my speed anymore,"" Clay said. ""But my mom and everybody tells me that you can't judge a book by its cover, so I do have my speed still.""
Down four points late in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game against Fresno State, Clay and the Wisconsin offense had less than six minutes to drive over 70 yards down the field and score a touchdown to avoid their first loss of the season.
Remarkably, Clay only needed 10 seconds to explode around right tackle Josh Oglesby for a career-long 72-yard touchdown dash to put the Badgers up by three. The redshirt sophomore added 32 yards in overtime to help set up Philip Welch's game-winning field goal and finished the game with a career-high 143 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown.
Clay was listed at 222 poundsa at the start of the 2008 season and showed up for fall camp at 248 after a busy offseason in the weight room. But after struggling against Northern Illinois and getting off to a slow start against Fresno State, the normally outstanding Wisconsin running game may have had some fans growing impatient waiting for it to click.
After the game, head coach Bret Bielema acknowledged that Clay needed a big play to get him going.
""John plays off emotion huge, and I would not want to be the guy tackling him there on that last overtime series,"" Bielema said. ""He had a purpose, and when he took off—everyone wants to talk about the 245-pound John Clay—that guy can run.""
After the enigmatic P.J. Hill declared for the 2009 NFL draft, many pinned Clay as the de facto starter heading into the season and predicted a breakout year for the preseason Doak Walker Award candidate. Those expectations were tempered, however, when Bielema named junior Zach Brown as Clay's co-starter in late August.
While Brown is a dynamic threat both rushing and receiving out of the backfield, Clay has been billed as the next best Wisconsin running back since he set foot on campus in fall 2007 after racking up over 5,000 yards and 58 touchdowns at Washington Park High School in Racine.
Some questioned Clay's maturity his freshman year when he was forced to redshirt because of academic problems, and his underwhelming performance against Northern Illinois brought questions about his effort coming off the bench. In case his explosive play against Fresno State didn't eradicate those concerns, Clay talked after the game about the benefit of having a skilled stable of running backs.
""This offense is about running the ball,"" he said. ""We've got great backs that can run the ball; any one of us can step up either way. [Saturday] was just my day, you know. I was hot [Saturday], so anything can happen, it can sway either way.
""It could be Zach's hot day [or] mine, so we're just here to help each other and support each other.""
For Wisconsin to compete in the Big Ten this season, the team will need both Clay and Brown to be running past, and over, opposing defenses with greater tenacity and consistency.
If Saturday's fourth quarter and overtime periods are any indicators, the Badgers could turn some cynical heads come October.