When the Buckeyes and Badgers face off on Saturday with the top spot in the Big Ten on the line, Ohio State will get a taste of its own medicine.
The Buckeyes’ offense the past three seasons featured a weapon known fondly as Chris “Beanie” Wells, or like those cut from the same mold, a “big back.”
In a conference that until recently was known for its power run games, a big bruising running back could often lead a team to victory, and even a Big Ten title.
That was the case with Wells, the 6-foot-1, 237-pound load who carried the Buckeyes to two conference championships in his time as a starter.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, Wells, who was the Big Ten’s best oversized runner, is now gone. Even more disheartening for OSU, the conference’s current best big back will now stare at them from across the line of scrimmage on Saturday.
The Buckeyes are no stranger to Wisconsin’s sophomore running back John Clay. The 6-foot-1, 248 pounder has been on OSU’s radar for years.
“We’ve known John Clay since he was, I don’t know, 10th or 11th grade, and tried to recruit him and had him on campus and all the rest. He’s a good back,” coach Jim Tressel said.
The Buckeyes did everything they could to pluck the highly touted Wisconsin native from Racine and bring him to Columbus. But it wasn’t meant to be, and Clay decided to stay home and be a Badger.
“He’s special and unusual and, like I told someone on the Big Ten call, someone asked about recruiting him and he stayed at home, which is hard to question why a guy would do that,” Tressel said about Clay. “It’s a good decision. He’s at a good place that utilizes him well and we’ve got to tackle him.”
His decision seems to have paid off. Clay leads the Big Ten and is fifth in the NCAA with an average of 116.4 rushing yards per game. His seven rushing touchdowns also lead the conference. Last week at Minnesota, Clay had a career day with 184 yards and three touchdowns.
The Buckeyes defense, especially against the run, has been successful this season. They have allowed 13, 82 and 18 yards rushing in their last three victories, placing them tenth in rush defense at 37.6 yards per game.
Senior defensive tackle Todd Denlinger found several similarities between the two backs.
“Similar running styles, they both love to run the ball hard,” he said. “‘Beanie maybe had a little more speed, where Clay packs a little more punch when he’s running downhill. I’d say as far as a comparison, that may be the closest comparison we’ve seen.”
Big games by Wells the last two seasons helped the Buckeyes beat the Badgers, who have won three of the last four in Columbus.
Wells had three scores in the second half to give the Buckeyes the lead against the Badgers at home in 2007. OSU knows stopping Clay from having such a day in The Horseshoe will be a key to victory.
“He’s a physical back, he runs downhill and he’d rather run over you than around you,” Denlinger said. “Thats the kind of back Wisconsin has always had.”