The No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers (3-2 Big Ten, 6-2 overall) are through the most treacherous section of their regular season, and the team fared far better than many would have expected coming into the fall.
But with November here and a trip to Northwestern next on the schedule, the Badgers aren’t quite out of the autumn woods.
“You have to respect Northwestern as a team because they put up a tough fight against Ohio State,” said Badgers’ senior running back Corey Clement. “I think we really have to come out firing on all cylinders and just prepare for a battle.”
Northwestern pushed the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes (4-1 Big Ten, 7-1 overall) to the fourth quarter, losing 24-20, just one week after the Badgers lost the Buckeyes in overtime.
In the past, the Badgers have maintained consistency, regardless of schedule, behind reliable backs. However, for the second year in a row, the Badgers seem to find themselves without the go-to guy that they have had in the past.
But that doesn’t mean this team is without their perennial talent at the position.
While UW doesn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher or even a back that averages over 100 yards, four backs average at least 4.3 yards per rush. It’s not as exciting as the Melvin Gordon Show or Ron Dayne bruising style, but in some ways it could be just as effective coming down the final stretch.
With the Wildcats’ athletic linebackers and stout front, the Badgers’ ability to keep fresh feet in the backfield will be invaluable.
Redshirt freshman running back Bradrick Shaw has become one of the most pleasantly surprising relievers of the season, and it hasn’t escaped the eye of fellow redshirt freshman, quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
“Bradrick’s a beast. It has been good for him this season to get on the field and get some big-time runs like he has,” Hornibrook said. “He’s a guy that came in [as] one of the strongest on the team, and he’s only going to get stronger, faster and smarter.”
That’s great news for Wisconsin fans, but frightening for the rest of the Big Ten. The freshman has noticeably improved from his limited reps a year ago as a redshirt participant.
Outside of his physical improvement, Shaw has made some real progress in the film room. Watching film this spring with senior Dare Ogunbowale and Clement allowed Shaw to pick up the productive study habits of his elders.
“He’s very attentive, especially [during] meetings, so now he’s asking a lot more questions and being more vocal,” Clement said. “He was very quiet when he first came in. Now Bradrick is really coming out of his shell.”
Shaw may be starting to fulfill his potential, but Clement himself seems to have slipped. The senior back had a rocky junior season and is possibly still feeling some effects from a sports hernia procedure from last year. But no matter what the reason, Clement remains unfulfilled with his final two seasons at Wisconsin.
“I’m not satisfied at all,” Clement said.
But with the College Football Playoff picture more clear and a path to the Big Ten Championship in sight, Clement is keeping the big picture in mind these last few weeks.
“November is that stretch where good teams separate from the not-so-good teams,” Clement said. “We look forward to going into a Big Ten Championship when it’s all said and done and proceeding on from there.”
With clear goals in mind, four backs to play with, some recent success in previous weeks and another week of gelling on the offensive front, the running game is poised to explode and carry the Badgers to finish.
“I think that we are really close, like we’ve been saying all year long,” sophomore fullback Alec Ingold said. “We are really close.”
But as any coach would tell you, “close” means nothing, and last year versus Northwestern, “close” resulted in a loss. The Badgers lost last season in the final seconds of a heartbreaking game to the Wildcats, and it’s not something the team has forgotten.
“That sucked last year. Jazz [Peavy] did catch it; I can say that now,” Clement said. “I can joke about it, but at that time it was very brutal. To walk off our field not victorious really hurt, so now we’re looking for vengeance.”