Andy Gottesman / Lantern Photographer
Ohio State’s fourth-ranked rushing defense will face perhaps its biggest challenge of the season Saturday night when it looks to slow Wisconsin’s solid ground game, which features bruising running back John Clay.
With 692 rushing yards and nine touchdowns through the season’s first six games, Clay is Wisconsin’s most dangerous weapon and has played himself into Heisman consideration. At 248 pounds, he will be the biggest feature running back the Buckeyes have seen in quite some time.
“He doesn’t even look like a running back. He’s a linebacker,” Cameron Heyward said at Tuesday’s weekly press conference. “He’s so explosive and you don’t even know it, but sometimes the team can be feeling down and he makes one big play and he can turn around the game.”
Coach Jim Tressel said the defense must also be prepared for the Badgers’ other running back, James White, who counterbalances Clay’s power-running style with his speed. White, at a more standard 198 pounds, has rushed for 485 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
“Obviously, John Clay is extraordinary, but you bring in that tempo-change guy and all of a sudden, he hits you with that different type look and I think it’s a great look,” Tressel said.
Wisconsin averages nearly 241 rushing yards a game, good for 11th in the country, while the Buckeyes only allow an average of 78.7 yards on the ground. OSU’s defense has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 29 games.
“I think (White) is a little more shifty, but he can be explosive as well,” Heyward said. “It’s going to be critical of us to contain both of them. It’s going to be a hard task and it’s not just going to be one guy, it’s going to take the whole team to just swarm to the ball.”
Heyward said the OSU defense will have to remain disciplined and react well to play action.
Clay has averaged more than 122 yards rushing in Badger wins, while only rushing for 80 yards in the team’s loss to Michigan State. Last year at Ohio Stadium, OSU held Clay to 59 yards on 20 carries in the Buckeyes’ 31-13 win.
“They have tremendous team speed,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said on the Big Ten’s weekly conference call. “Some teams have fast linebackers or fast defensive backs. They have fast everything.”
Tressel said that aside from being a good power-running team, Wisconsin’s offensive coaching staff has done a good job in being creative with its play calling. But just like any other Big Ten game, they both agree the contest will be won with line play up front.
“I think all games are won on the offensive and defensive line,” Heyward said. “In the summer and spring we emphasized if we win every battle in the trenches, we’ll have a great chance of winning.”