The Wisconsin “football factory” has been working overtime this season to produce quality running backs in a seemingly neverending army of talented ball carriers in the backfield.
At the start of the season, everyone was expecting a two-headed monster of redshirt sophomore Bradrick Shaw and redshirt junior transfer Chris James to carry the load, but they were quickly overshadowed by freshman Jonathan Taylor, who at one point looked like a darkhorse Heisman candidate.
Now, entering Week 10 against the Indiana Hoosiers (0-5 Big Ten, 3-5 overall), the Badgers (5-0, 8-0) will be relying on redshirt freshman Garrett Groshek and redshirt senior graduate transfer Rachid Ibrahim to power the all-important rushing attack.
Taylor and James are questionable for Saturday’s game with left leg injuries, while Shaw is still active in the rotation but running at less than 100-percent health.
Groshek has seen his playing time steadily increase in each of the previous three weeks, from two carries against Purdue up to 12 last week in Illinois. He’s averaging over 6.8 yards per carry over that span, looking to continue that against an experienced Indiana front seven.
“Whatever he’s been asked to do, he’s competed, and he’s got a competitive spirit that’s special,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “It shows up for us on the game film, it’s happened this year, and we’re going to lean on it.”
Groshek has been thrown into the fire this season after just moving to the running back position last spring. He came to Wisconsin as a mobile quarterback before joining a crowded backfield, keeping his head down and working hard for the moment his number was called.
“We’ve really been preparing since camp,” Groshek said. “Every guy in the running back room prepares like they’re going to be the guy, so nothing has really changed for me as far as preparation and staying ready.”
Ibrahim had a much different path but still found himself in a similar spot to his young teammate. After finishing four years at Pittsburgh, he was free to transfer to UW this summer to become the fourth or fifth running back on the depth chart.
He’s had to take his opportunities wherever he could get them. His playing time has fluctuated this season with the other injuries at his position, and in the last three games, he’s found himself in more of a third-down type of role with only two carries to show for it.
“That’s been my calling the last couple games. It may change this game; it may change the next game. It really just depends,” Ibrahim said. “We have a really talented room, so coach [John Settle] just tries to get everybody involved one way or another.
“If my number is called to run the ball, I’ll run the ball. If it’s called to catch the ball or pass protect, I’ll do that. Coach [Settle] has a lot of trust in all of us in the room, so he’s just been trying to work the rotation.”
The Badgers’ running back rotation will be put to the test this week against a Hoosiers’ defense that shut down Penn State’s Saquon Barkley earlier this year, holding the Heisman front-runner to just 56 yards on 20 carries.
Indiana will surely be keying in on the Wisconsin backfield to try to force redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook to throw his team to victory; but Groshek and company know how to keep things in perspective.
“We just kind of trust the process and control what you can control,” Groshek said. “You won’t always be able to rip off a nice run even though J.T. [Jonathan Taylor] makes it look pretty easy. What happens, happens. You just have to focus on that play, and when it’s over, focus on the next one.”
Whether it’s Groshek, Ibrahim, Shaw or a healthy Taylor or James, the Badgers will have no shortage of talented ball-carriers all waiting for their opportunity to get off the sideline assembly line and produce for the Wisconsin running back factory.