MADISON — If you were wondering when the University of Wisconsin was going to get its signature running game back in gear, it means you probably missed it.
It went largely unnoticed, but the Badgers’ power running game got rolling pretty well the second half of last season and, after sputtering at the start, continued to rumble during Wisconsin’s season-opening, 59-10 victory over Utah State last week.
OK, so we’re not talking about Wisconsin’s usual punishing ground game here. There are no tailbacks putting up historic numbers like Ron Dayne, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon once did.
But given what coach Paul Chryst inherited when he returned to Wisconsin two years ago, just getting the running game back up to speed was a major accomplishment. The offensive line was in shambles and the tailback corps was short-handed, two things that rarely happen at Wisconsin. The promising performance against Utah State, while not without concerns, provided confirmation that Wisconsin is getting back to being Wisconsin in the running game.
“I thought we were doing pretty well, especially in the second half,” quarterback Alex Hornibrook said. “The O-line was opening up some holes for us and then we had some backs start making some plays.”
That has to be a concern for Florida Atlantic, which will face ninth-ranked Wisconsin today at Camp Randall Stadium. In dropping to a 42-19 decision to Navy in their opener, the Owls allowed 415 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
The test for Wisconsin today will be getting its ground game going right from the start, something that didn’t happen against Utah State. Feeding Wisconsin a steady diet of curveballs, the Aggies defense held the Badgers to 44 yards on 23 carries in the first half.
Once the Badgers figured out what the Aggies were doing, however, it was no contest. Freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor broke a 41-yard run on the first play of the second half and Wisconsin was off to the races, rushing for 190 yards on 22 carries — 8.6 yards per carry — in the half.
The combination of communication issues on the veteran line and overanxiousness by the three inexperienced tailbacks contributed to Wisconsin’s early woes. But in short order, the line stopped making mistakes and the tailbacks, especially Taylor and starter Bradrick Shaw, started running more assertively.
“We were able to get our confidence back and just start cutting it loose and playing fast,” tackle Michael Deiter said. “The results came with it. We know that if we can cut it loose and play fast that we should be able to run the football against anything. That’s what we want to be able to do. I think that’s what we saw when we got everything figured out.”
The adjustment period was a surprise given that Wisconsin returned four starters on the line. Even though left tackle Ryan Ramczyk was a first-round NFL draft pick and Deiter moved from center to left tackle to accommodate talented freshman Tyler Biadisz, many expected the line to pick up where it left off last year.
When Chryst was offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2011, Uw was a dynamic running team. Over the final five of those seven seasons, it never averaged fewer than 200 yards per game rushing for a season, a trend that continued after Chryst left to coach Pitt.
However, the personnel had changed dramatically by the time Chryst returned in 2015 and Wisconsin rushed for 150.3 yards per game — its lowest output since 1995 — in his first season. Last season, Wisconsin upped that average to 203.1 yards per game, but there was a sizable difference between the first half of the season and the second.
Wisconsin rushed for 173 yards per game in the first seven games but increased that to a more typical 233.1 yards per game in the final seven games as the line came together and tailbacks Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale and Shaw got rolling. Shaw is the only one of the three back, but Taylor lived up to all the hype in his first game and no one is counting out Pitt transfer Chris James despite a tough opening game.
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph used the phrase “ups and downs” when assessing Wisconsin’s run game against Utah State, citing inconsistency with the linemen finishing blocks and the backs reading things properly. Chryst said much the same thing.
“I think in the run game we certainly had some good plays,” he said, “but we felt like we left a lot of yards out there that we didn’t maximize the opportunities that we had. We spent some time with them (Monday) on the smallest of details, be it a split by a lineman or the back being patient enough to see. I felt like each back had a couple that they just didn’t hit where it’s designed to go. We don’t know, but you’ve got a chance for (those) to be bigger (plays). I think we had a couple of mental mistakes that didn’t give us a chance at all. It was good pointing that out.”
What the game pointed out was that Wisconsin’s line can already handle adjustments and the backs, especially Taylor and Shaw, give the Badgers more explosiveness than it had the last two seasons. Does that mean Wisconsin’s running game is back in form?
That’s hard to say after one game against an overmatched opponent, but given the way the Badgers ended last season, they finally appears to have the pieces in place to do what it does best.