Winter in Wisconsin doesn't exactly lend itself to scooter riding, especially in the darkness at 5 a.m. But five days a week in January and February there was 6' 1", 248-pound Badgers running back John Clay, shivering as he drove down snow-covered streets from his on-campus apartment to the football team's indoor practice facility, where he would jump into a pool and perform exercises to rehabilitate both ankles. The reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year had bone spurs removed from his left ankle and bone fragments removed from his right in the off-season, and now he promises to be an improved running back in 2010. "I'll definitely be able to cut better, and I won't have to hold back during games worrying about hurting myself," says Clay, who despite those bad joints led the conference in rushing with 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns. "Those mornings of rehab were tough. It was really, really cold. But it was worth it because I feel better than I have in years."
Now that Clay is healthy, the Badgers should contend for their first Big Ten title since 1999. With 10 starters returning from an offense that last season was one of six in the country to average more than 200 yards rushing and passing, Wisconsin will be a threat to put up 40 points every Saturday.
Clay again will power that unit. Last year against Fresno State he took a handoff, broke through the line, cut to his right and sprinted down the sideline. Two Fresno State defensive backs appeared to have the angle on him, but he ran away for a 72-yard score. "I don't think that there's a running back in the country who has John's combination of size, speed and power," says senior quarterback Scott Tolzien. "He's a beast."
But the key to the Badgers' conference title hopes—and whether they can beat Ohio State and Iowa in back-to-back games in October—will be the defense. In '09 Wisconsin gave up 21.8 points a game, fourth best in the Big Ten. This season the unit should be stronger because of the year of starting experience that sophomore linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor received last fall. Says coach Bret Bielema, "We obviously have to play better on defense to achieve everything we think we can."
August 15, 2010
CONFERENCE Big Ten
COACH Bret Bielema (5th year)
2009 RECORD 10--3 (5--3 in Big Ten)
FINAL AP RANK 16
RETURNING STARTERS 16
Offense 10, Defense 6
Like fellow LB Chris Borland, Taylor is an All--Big Ten talent who is returning from off-season surgery (ACL).
Arguably the most underrated player in the conference, Tolzien led the Big Ten in passing efficiency in '09.
As the lone returning starter on the line, Watt (15½ tackles for loss in '09) will move into a featured pass-rushing role.