THE EPIC PAINTING UPDATE
The University of Wisconsin football team emphasizes the slogan “Run to Win” and devotes a portion of practices to that theory.
Actually, it’s much more than a slogan for the No. 24 Badgers. It’s more a way of life.
“It means everything,” senior running back James White said. “Just run to win on every play, that’s kind of what it is. Whatever play is called, everybody has to have confidence in the call, be on the same page and work hard through the whistle.”
The three-time defending Big Ten Conference champion Badgers (3-1, 1-0) did that again on Saturday in their league opener. They came in ranked fifth nationally in rushing, averaging 337 yards per game, and improved on that with 388 yards and five rushing touchdowns in a 41-10 pounding of Purdue in front of 80,772 fans at Camp Randall Stadium.
“It was important,” sophomore tailback Melvin Gordon said of getting off to a fast start in the day’s only Big Ten game. “The conference started today for us. It was big to make a statement.”
The Badgers’ statement was clear: The running game is as dominant as ever.
Gordon rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries, averaging 9.2 yards per carry. White was every bit as explosive with 16 carries for 145 yards and one score, while also catching three passes for 49 yards.
“It’s just fun, the chemistry between those two,” senior tight end Brian Wozniak said. “They know when to cut off us, they know when to go outside of us. It’s just fun to come out and put together almost 400 yards rushing against a Big Ten opponent.”
That was the biggest thing about the latest installment of “Backs Running Wild” — that it came against a conference opponent with two impressive defensive tackles in 310-pound senior Bruce Gaston and 306-pound sophomore Ryan Watson.
“We came in saying this is going to be one of the tougher defensive fronts we face, that’s even after (Arizona State),” Wozniak said. “I think we handled them well. I think communication on the front seven was the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here. That’s awesome to have.”
The Badgers have won eight straight in this series, the longest winning streak for either team in a rivalry that dates to 1892.
It was the same old, same old, for the Boilermakers (1-3, 0-1), who have allowed an average of 331.6 rushing yards during the losing streak to UW.
“Right now, we’ve got to do a good job as a football team soul-searching,” Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said. “Obviously, that’s not the way Purdue football wants to play. We need to get a lot better.”
One of the many things that make UW’s offense so dangerous is its explosiveness. Even with starting quarterback Joel Stave struggling to connect on deep throws to wide-open receivers, the Badgers are still getting big plays, especially from their running game.
They have six runs of at least 50 yards in four games. They had nine all of last year, which ranked second in the country to the 10 by Utah State — where UW coach Gary Andersen worked last season.
“It’s hard in today’s day and age of college football to go 12 plays and 80 yards and a pile of dust consistently,” Andersen said. “You’ve got to have yards in chunks. We’ve been able to do that when we’ve been successful on offense. When we’ve kind of stubbed our toe and not been as effective, we don’t see those chunk yardages coming our way.”
White had a 70-yard touchdown run near the end of the first quarter on third-and-1 in which he made two defenders miss with nice cuts.
“I knew I had the safety (Anthony Brown) one-on-one,” White said. “He filled the hole pretty hard. I just put my foot in the ground, got vertical, had another one-on-one situation (with safety Taylor Richards) and had a lot of space to work, so I just made another cut inside and went through.”
UW’s backs are so talented, all they’re looking for is one-on-one matchups in the open field while trusting their linemen, tight ends and fullbacks will ultimately wear the opposing defense down.
“You may not break one in the first quarter, but they’re working hard, wearing the D-line down, wearing the linebackers down and giving us opportunities to have one-on-one matchups in the open field,” White said. “We have to win those situations.”
In 13 possessions by Purdue, UW’s defense forced five three-and-outs and finished with four sacks, eight tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries. The Boilermakers finished with 180 total yards, the second time this season UW has held an opponent to less than 200. Tennessee Tech managed just 113.
Andersen admitted the passing game needs to improve heading into next week’s game at No. 4 Ohio State. Stave threw for 158 yards and had his third interception of the season.
But the running game is so formidable, UW only needs a little more consistency through the air.
Andersen, who coached two future NFL running backs at Utah State, said he has never been around a duo as good as Gordon and White. And freshman Corey Clement added 83 yards, just missing a third game for UW this season with three 100-yard backs.
“Especially the way they fit into the type of offense,” Andersen said. “… I believe we have two NFL backs playing for us now. They’re so dynamic, their ability to make people miss, and they really kind of complement each other with their running styles.
“They’re special kids. The third guy jogging out there on the field is not too bad, either.”