MADISON, Wis. — Two weeks without a football game provided Wisconsin’s coaching staff plenty of time to hone in on fixing the team’s struggles in the run game. And Badgers coach Gary Andersen said following Thursday’s practice the best way to achieve that feat was simply to strap on the pads and let the starters clang against each other.
"I think we had more crossover this week, especially with good on good, ones on ones, ones on twos for sometimes up to 20 minutes a practice," Andersen said. "I think that’s good for this team. They handled it well. They practiced well against each other. It was good for them to see the physical nature of the travel team against the travel team, if you will. Other than that, we worked extremely hard and worked on getting better at our core plays."
Wisconsin is coming off a game two Saturdays ago against Western Illinois in which standout running back Melvin Gordon carried 17 times for 38 yards. As a team, the Badgers rushed 39 times for 167 yards, which equates to a 4.3 yards-per-carry average. It marked just the second time in the past eight seasons in which Wisconsin averaged 4.3 yards rushing or fewer against an FCS opponent.
One poor game against a team that loaded the box and dared Wisconsin to pass does not have anyone in panic mode, of course. Wisconsin averaged 6.9 yards per carry in the season opener against LSU. And for the season, the Badgers are still averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Over the previous four seasons, Wisconsin averaged 5.5 yards per rush, 5.4 yards, 5.2 yards and 6.6 yards last season during a record-breaking year.
"We expect to get our run game back on track," Andersen said. "We expect to be a physical run team. That’s where we sit with it. We’re not putting any numbers on it or where we want to go. We want to run an effective offense, an effective defense and an effective special teams. Is it a mindset, a want-to for all of us involved in this football program to run the ball better than we did a couple weeks ago? Yes."
Third tailback: Gordon and Corey Clement remain a formidable 1-2 running back combination for Wisconsin. But there are significant depth questions because the Badgers will be without freshman tailback Taiwan Deal for the foreseeable future, as well as fullbacks Derek Watt and Derek Straus. Freshman tailback Caleb Kinlaw already is taking a redshirt season.
Straus has a collarbone injury, while Deal has a right hand injury. Watt is out until November with a foot injury.
"Straus is still 10 days to two weeks probably," Andersen said of a return date. "Taiwan is an extended period of time. Weeks, depending on how he heals. There’s a lot of things that have got to go on."
That leaves fullback Austin Ramesh as the team’s third running back against Bowling Green on Saturday. Ramesh has yet to record a carry this season, but he did see extensive work at tailback during the spring as the Badgers first-teamers rested.
"Austin has proved himself throughout spring where he took a bunch of reps to be a very adequate young man to put the ball in his hands and run this offense," Andersen said. "I don’t think you’d put it out there and have him run a bunch of tosses. But you get in between the tackles and doing some things, he’s a physical, powerful kid."
Defensive confidence: In addition to helping the run game, Wisconsin’s bye week also helped the defense with extra time to prepare for Bowling Green’s up-tempo offense. Bowling Green ran 113 plays against Indiana in a 45-42 victory last Saturday.
Andersen noted he was confident his players understood how to handle the pace of play.
"It’s nice to have time," Andersen said. "I kind of look at it like you feel when you’re going to play the option. Back in the day when you used to get ready to play Air Force, you kind of felt like you had a good plan and you never knew until the first drive. It’s so important in games like this to feel the tempo and the pace and understand because you can’t duplicate it.
"But I feel good about it. We’ve played pretty well against some pace teams before. We’ll have to handle the pace plays this week mentally, through the communication. And we’ll also have to understand that we’re going to have to handle them physically."