Clay, Wisconsin show future may be rosy in bowl win over Miami

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Wisconsin's players noticed, and they jumped around, too. As the Badgers' offensive linemen (average weight for starters: 326.5 pounds) shook the earth, the signature horns finally blared over the speakers, and for a moment we were all transported back to a time when H.O.P. frontman Everlast didn't consider himself a serious artist and when Brent Moss and Terrell Fletcher helped Wisconsin bulldoze its way to the Rose Bowl.

If one particular Badger doesn't make a jump of his own, we may be on the verge of watching another two-headed tailback monster leading Wisconsin onto the field in Pasadena in 367 days.

A year ago, the Badgers came to this same bowl and got throttled by a nine-win ACC team (Florida State). Tuesday, Wisconsin showed how much it has grown with a 20-14 win against Miami (RECAP | BOX SCORE), which, as coincidence would have it, is a nine-win ACC team. Almost everyone will return next year, so just imagine how good the Badgers will be in 2010.

Especially if John Clay comes back. And, according to Clay, he is.

"It's definite that I'm coming back," the Badgers' 6-foot-1, 248-pound bullet train of a tailback said after an MVP performance that featured 121 rushing yards and both of Wisconsin's touchdowns. "I've been telling everyone this whole year that we'll have an explosive offense. The sky's the limit. ... I'm not going to miss an opportunity to be part of this again."

Clay, a redshirt sophomore, could jump to the NFL if he wanted. Instead, he has chosen to reunite himself with backfield mate Montee Ball to help make Wisconsin a Big Ten title contender. Other than Alabama's Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, it's tough to name a better returning tailback combo. As an added bonus, Clay, who finished 2009 with 1,517 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, probably will begin next season in the Heisman Trophy conversation.

Clay has good reason to be optimistic. The Badgers return their entire offensive line. They return quarterback Scott Tolzien, who handled Miami's speedy rushers brilliantly while racking up 260 yards on 19-of-26 passing. Though Wisconsin doesn't return tight end Garrett Graham, it will have his backup, Lance Kendricks. While Graham, the starter, garnered much of Miami's attention Tuesday, it was Kendricks who caught seven passes for 128 yards and who leveled a Miami defender to spring Clay for Wisconsin's second touchdown. Wisconsin even returns punter Brad Nortman, who averaged 42.3 yards a kick in the regular season and who pinned Miami inside its own 12 three times.

The Badgers will need to find someone to replace defensive end O'Brien Schofield, who terrorized quarterbacks all season, and they'll have to shore up after a few other departures on defense, but on balance, they'll return plenty on that side of the ball, too.

Lest we get too excited about one win in a Dec. 29 bowl, we should remember that Wisconsin hadn't beaten a ranked team until Tuesday. But consider the youth of the Badgers, and consider where they were a year ago.

After the Florida State loss, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema fielded plenty of questions about the future of the program, but they weren't nearly so optimistic. After the Badgers limped to a 7-6 record, it seemed appropriate to ask if Wisconsin, given its recruiting base and talent level, could ever play its way back to the Rose Bowl. Tuesday, after the 2009 Badgers won their 10th game, it seemed appropriate to ask just how excited the Badgers are about next season.

They should be very excited. With that line and those backs and a defense that can bring the heat down after down, Wisconsin might even break the 40-minute time of possession mark a few times next season. Tuesday, the Badgers hogged the ball for 39 minutes, 15 seconds. "It does kind of change your gameplan," said Miami quarterback Jacory Harris, who threw for 188 yards and was sacked five times. "You're playing against the time, because if you don't score, they're going to take about 10 minutes off the clock."

When a local reporter asked Bielema about the importance of possession time, the coach just laughed. "Are you from down here?" Bielema asked, incredulous. "That's what we do. We're time of possession fools."

Winning by bleeding the clock and punting inside the 10 may not set the blood boiling for those accustomed to the pinball offenses that have taken over the Big 12 and Pac-10, and because it's -- say this in your deepest John Facenda baritone -- Big Ten football, the folks in SEC country are sure to scoff. But Wisconsin plays in the Big Ten, and the team Bielema has built is designed to win the Big Ten. If the Badgers never won by 30, it wouldn't make Pasadena any less warm during the holidays.

Wisconsin still has some growing to do to make that dream come true. They have a favorable schedule that brings Ohio State to Camp Randall Stadium, and they don't have to play Penn State, but they do go to Iowa, and they'll have to be more consistent against the teams that won't contend for the title.

After the win, Tolzein looked back and explained how Tuesday proved just how far Wisconsin has come. "I think everyone realized that up until this game, we had won the games we were supposed to win, but there wasn't a big win, per se," Tolzein said. "This is a real exclamation point."

Bielema, meanwhile, provided an even better descriptor. In analyzing the win, he hit upon the perfect term. He called it a catapult.