A returning and healthy Corey Clement gave hope that 2016 was going to be the year the Badgers offense got back to its roots — pounding the football down opponents throats and winning games with a dominant run game.
Five games in, and many are still wondering exactly when that run game is going to show up.
Sure, Clement had an ankle issue that he had to work through, but there were plenty of other experienced options and an offensive line that featured plenty of returning players too.
So, what exactly is going on with the Badgers run game?
To date, the Badgers are averaging just 161.6 yards per game, putting them ninth in the Big Ten and a far cry from the level of production most Badgers fans and the coaching staff expect from the team.
Mustering up just 71 yards of rushing offense against Michigan is one thing. After all, the Wolverines defense has proven to be one of the better groups in the nation, let alone the Big Ten. But, outside of a good day against a really bad Akron defense, the Badgers ground game has largely been grounded.
Clement, who was expected to be a star in his final season in a Badgers uniform has had trouble getting going.
Whether it has been a lack of holes up the middle, teams keying on the run game early or a pesky ankle injury, Clement has failed to find ways to overcome the challenges in front of him. He is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry this season after coming in to the year averaging over 6 yards a carry for his career.
The senior does have five touchdowns through five games, but also is averaging only a shade under 80 yards per game too. He is the only Badgers running back to top the 100-yard mark and did that in a 111-yard first half against Akron before exiting with said ankle injury.
Injuries also haven’t helped this run game gain any sort of consistency. Both promising young backs Taiwan Deal and Bradrick Shaw have had injuries force them to inactivity as of late.
Shaw’s shoulder injury is perhaps the most worrisome, as he proved to be playing at a very high level when given his opportunity against Georgia State a few weeks ago. Getting him back could prove to help spark the Badgers run game.
There’s also the issue of shuffling offensive linemen in front of the Badgers running backs. Injuries to the two best options at left guard — redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen and sophomore Micah Kapoi — has meant Brett Connors coming on to play center with Michael Deiter moving to left guard.
It’s an experiment that hasn’t worked out all that well against powerful defenses like Michigan State and Michigan over the last two weeks.
Also troubling has been the lack of vision from senior running back Dare Ogunbowale. He has been unable to find a hole or make the right cut to make a three-yard gain turn in to six or more all season long.
Sadly, the biggest condemnation of Wisconsin’s running back situation is the utter lack of trust in Clement to be a three-down back.
In a game that hung in the balance late in the fourth quarter, Clement was nowhere to be found on the field. Instead, it was Ogunbowale getting the snaps with UW down by one score. It was also Ogunbowale trusted to be the one running a wheel route and hauling in the 17-yard touchdown pass that Wisconsin did have.
Given the early returns on Clement’s career behind Melvin Gordon and James White, it has been head-scratching to see him fall off so fast.
There’s plenty of time to correct the issues and a week off here to help him continue to heal the ankle and get other players healthy is going to be hugely important.
With UW committed to redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin needs to find its run game. That much was made clear in the Badgers’ loss to Michigan on Saturday afternoon.
Asking Hornibrook to go out and win you games by himself week after week is a recipe for disaster at this point.
Pairing his big-play ability with a quality effort on the ground? That is exactly how Wisconsin can continue to be a competitor in the Big Ten West division race.
Until that happens though, the Badgers’ one-dimensional offense is likely to continue to cost it games.