IOWA CITY — While much of the country praised Wisconsin for taking then-No. 4 Michigan deep into the fourth quarter on the road a few weeks ago before losing 14-7, Badger running backs heard a far different message behind closed doors.
A net 71 yards rushing that day left position coach John Settle unsettled.
“Coach ‘Set’ said in the meeting room that everybody was fighting for his job after that,” said starting tailback Corey Clement, who had 68 of those yards on 17 carries.
“As a senior, I really took that to heart because this is my last go-round. I have something to lose. So I need to help us put a final statement on my career. That’s my edge the rest of the season.”
Consider that message received, and Clement’s mission full on.
In the next game, Clement gashed No. 2 Ohio State’s top-10 defense for 164 yards in 25 carries, including a 68-yard burst, in Wisconsin’s 30-23 overtime loss.
The 5-foot-11, 227-pound back from Glassboro, New Jersey, followed that up Saturday by hammering out 134 yards in 35 carries in a 17-9 victory at Iowa.
It wasn’t all pretty against the Hawkeyes. Clement lost a fumble going into the end zone in the second quarter from the 1-yard line, and bobbled the ball briefly on a 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
But when Wisconsin needed a long drive late in the fourth quarter to kill clock and score a clinching field goal, Clement was nails. He went left for 6 yards, up the middle for 3, left for 34, up the middle for 4 and up the middle for 3.
That set up a field goal for a 17-6 lead with 1:24 left. Game over. On to Nebraska.
“We’ve been looking forward to Nebraska,” Clement said. “It’s another undefeated team.”
Clement takes every snap this season with purpose, but derives special pleasure from high-ranked matchups like this Saturday’s. (Wisconsin beat Iowa on the road and fell from 10th to 11th, while Nebraska rose from eighth to seventh after struggling at home with Purdue.)
It’s because of what he missed in 2015.
Last season was when Clement was supposed to take over for Melvin Gordon — sorry, Husker fans, for that memory — rush for 2,000 yards and be an early entrant into the NFL draft. But a sports hernia slowed him from fall camp on. He underwent early-season surgery in Germany and eventually played in three games, gaining 205 yards.
A sprained ankle has slowed Clement this season. But he has shown more burst and jump-cutting ability the past two weeks, and those efforts have moved him to 26th on the national rushing chart at 102.8 yards a game.
“I have to finish strong,” Clement said. “If I have to take 50 carries a game, so be it.”
Clement is working behind an offensive line that Wisconsin insiders all said before the season was a year away from being its best. Adding to the woe up front has been a series of injuries.
At Iowa on Saturday, Wisconsin beat writers would watch the offense come on the field, grab binoculars and try to see who was playing and at which position. It changed that often.
The combined offensive line injuries at Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa are well into double digits. Some of the Big Ten West race will come down to luck, depending on whom you play on what day and who is healthy.
Is it difficult for Clement to get a rhythm going when the offensive line changes sometimes from series to series?
“Yes,” he said, matter-of-factly. “But those things aren’t really going to play into how a running back is going to play. I have to utilize my time in practice to get to know who is blocking and how they like to block, and then use my style from there.”
The emergence of Wisconsin’s running game the past two weeks has noticeably impacted the offense. The Badgers gained 450 total yards on Ohio State and 423 on Iowa. What’s left to clean up are some failures to convert in the red zone.
Wisconsin is expanding its offense as the season goes on.
Against Iowa, the Badgers added a package of plays for senior quarterback Bart Houston, who started three games before giving way to freshman Alex Hornibrook. Houston led a 58-yard touchdown drive utilizing more rollout passes and read-option looks than Hornibrook, who hangs in the pocket forever.
Also, two freshman receivers who had touched the ball a combined five times before Saturday produced gains of 23 and 57 yards. Other reserves also saw meaningful playing time in both lines and the secondary because of injuries.
“We need everybody in that room, and then some,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “The kids put it all out there.”
The Badgers have put it all out there all season with a schedule that has included LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa, with Nebraska and Northwestern up next.
“We’re just playing,” Clement said. “We don’t care who is next. It’s been smash-mouth football with no cakewalks. But we just love to play football, and the brotherhood on this team is through the roof.”