Trying to Hit the Third Gear

Wisconsin's offense has registered over 400 yards in its first three games but the reaction of the Badgers' high-powered running game and massive offensive line are in agreement: they can do better.

MADISON — Criticizing a running game that has averaged 228 yards per game at five yards a clip this season is nit-picking to be sure.

Still, with that John Clay-sized caveat, there is an overwhelming feeling among the UW roster that the staple of the Badgers offense has yet to see its best days. With seven potential starters among the offensive line and three talented running backs, Wisconsin has a right to want the absolute best from its ground attack.

And right now, that absolute best is missing. Simply put, yards are being left on the field.

"I agree," senior captain and left guard John Moffitt said. "I think there are definitely instances where we can have some big hits, some big plays. It is just one person, one job not paying attention to detail, and that's tough. I think we have done well, but we haven't reached our potential."

"It is always one little thing."

Take Saturday's 20-19 win over Arizona State. The Badgers racked up 194 yards at 4.6 yards a pop; respectable numbers against a BCS conference opponent.

Yet there were several plays things just didn't seem to be clicking. The Badgers failed to convert two third-and-short plays in the fourth quarter, with Clay being stuffed on both attempts before the first down marker. Both drives could have squeezed the life out of ASU, preventing the need for a Jay Valai game-saving blocked PAT.

Through three games this year, the Badgers are converting on 50 percent of third downs — a decent number until you remember it includes less-than-equal opponents UNLV and San Jose State. Overall, UW failed on five attempts to move the chains on third-and-five or less against Arizona State.

"I don't think we let it get to us, but it is disappointing," Moffitt said. "Where I think we were so good last year on third down conversion, that saves you a lot.

"That does mentally beat someone up, and we need to get better at that."

Part of the blame lies on the junior Clay. According to running backs coach John Settle, the failed conversions were due more to what Clay didn't do then anything the defense did to stop him.

On the first attempt, Clay should have gone north-south instead of trying to bounce to the outside and on the second drive of the fourth quarter he boxed himself in by running too close to fullback Ryan Groy.

"I have told them in the meetings, ‘hey if you have the ball in your hand on third-and-one, third-and-two, you have to find a way to get a first down'," Settle said.

"The fact that we haven't converted on more third and shorts kind of jumps out at me.When a guy is weighing 250 pounds, and the defense is kind of winded, that is when a defense should crack."

Another missing part of the running game has been Montee Ball.

While Both Clay and true-freshman James White possess superb rate stats — 6.2 and 5.4 yards per carry, respectively — Ball has been perfectly ordinary at 4.0 yards per carry, disappointing numbers when you factor in the competition. UW head coach Bret Bielema made it clear this week that White would take carries from Ball if the sophomore running back could not get it going.

Ball added weight in the off-season, but according to Settle, it was good weight; muscle mass, not fat.

Instead of anything physically challenging him, Ball has fallen into a funk of missing his reads. Like a batter in baseball who cannot pick up the ball from the pitcher's hand, Ball's uncertainty has handicapped him.

"That is his big problem right now," Settle said. "Not finding his run keys, before or after the ball is snapped, he hasn't done that on every play. He is guessing a lot.

"You can tell when he is guessing because he stutters his feet. When you see that you can tell something is not right.

"He is not James White. He doesn't have the quick agility to cut and slash, he is a power guy."

Ball understands the issue. But telling yourself to stop over-thinking, thus causing yourself to over-think can be a vicious cycle.

"I am reading way to much into most plays," Ball added. "I am trying to make a big play out of every play and you can't do that.

"Once I have made my read, I just have to trust it. Coach always tells us, even if it is a wrong read, hit it, go 100 percent because otherwise you might be going backwards."

Of course, the ASU game wasn't nearly all bad. Although the third-down conversions and yard left on the field will give the Badgers plenty to learn from on video, one particular drive in the third quarter needs no improvement.

The Badgers took the lead after a 19-yard touchdown from Clay, but the lead up to the score was almost mesmerizing. Play after play, quarterback Scott Tolzien handed the ball off and just watched as his backs ripped off chunks of yards. In all, UW ran it seven times for 78 yards.

"That is the ideal drive," Moffitt said. "I know it is easier said then done, but when everybody does their job the play is going to work. We just have to duplicate that more often."

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