Three Yards and a Trip to Pasadena

The spread offense is still the latest trend in college football and has found its way into the playbook of seven Big Ten teams. No.4 Wisconsin sticks to its old school mantra, resulting in a trip to the Rose Bowl and proclamation that power running is far from dead.

LOS ANGELES — December 17, 2007 is a day football purest would say the traditional power running offense was put on the endangered species list.

That day marked the hiring of Rich Rodriguez by the University of Michigan and the last time tradition-rich Michigan would recruit big offensive linemen, a power running back and have the simple game plan of running the ball straight down the field.

The hiring of Rodriguez signified that seven of the 11 teams in the Big Ten – a conference historically known for power football and battling in the trenches - employed some type of the spread offense, and the two lynchpins of the conference – Michigan and Ohio State - chose to bank its success on misdirection and razzle dazzle.

Wisconsin Head Coach Bret Bielema likes to joke that his school isn't a ‘sexy school,' not doing anything flashy but have his offensive linemen put their hands in the ground, hand the ball off to a bruising running back and let the cards fall where they may.

So in this year's non-traditional match-up in college football's most traditional bowl game, Wisconsin is keeping it old school with three running backs all having rushed for over 880 yards and 13 touchdowns, restoring some semblance of order to the Big Ten's credibility.

"They're almost impossible to stop," junior defensive end J.J. Watt said of the running game, which ranks 12th in the country in rushing offense, averaging 247.3 yards per game, and has set a school record with 46 rushing touchdowns. "Two All-American on the left, an entire All-Big Ten offensive line and three power backs, they create such a tough match-up."

In the past three games, UW has rushed for a combined 1,024 yards (341.3 ypg), doing the majority of the work without 2009 Big Ten Player of the Year John Clay, who was out nursing a knee injury. As a result of the balance, all three players have a shot at 1,000 yard seasons, the first time it would ever be accomplished in FBS history.

"It is a testament to the players," said Running Back Coach John Settle, as Clay needs 64 yards and Montee Ball needs 136 yards to join Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White (1,029). "We have three guys that came in and committed themselves to being the best that they could be and giving us a chance."

Only at Wisconsin could the third-string running back emerge as the star. Once relegated to third-string status with Clay and White making strides, Ball, who carried zero times against No.1 Ohio State, took advantage of injuries to average 161.2 yards and has scored 13 TDs in the last four games.

"We knew what James was capable of the first day we saw him in camp, but Montee went through a lot from the beginning of the year to where we are now," Clay said. "He's staying with the system and we're all really happy for him."

Even with Clay fidgeting on the sideline over the last four games, there was no ego, no attitude and no back stabbing behind the scenes, a product of Settle's tutelage.

Before the season began, Settle was given the task by Bielema to address the group about playing together and not falling into the usual primadonna stereotype that running backs are usually labeled. As a result, the trio eats together, watch film together, hang out together and perform well together.

"Settle talked about managing personalities and being able to take pride as a group," Bielema said. "I thought he's really done a nice job in doing that. That formulates into what you see during the day and kind of forces that bond that those three guys have."

It's a rushing attack that makes for an interesting storyline when Wisconsin goes up against No.3 TCU in Saturday's Rose Bowl, as the Horned Frogs are No. 1 in the nation in total defense (215.42 ypg) and No.3 against the run (89.17 ypg). When the Badgers were fully healthy and facing Ohio State and Iowa, the fourth and sixth-ranked rushing defenses, respectively in the country, the Badgers ran for a combined 326 yards and six touchdowns.

Three yards and a cloud of dust seemed to be gone forever from Big Ten. Wisconsin is showing that playing ‘ugly' could win college football's ‘sexiest' game for the fourth time since 1994.

"Anytime you are winning and anytime you are having success it is going to be a team effort," Settle said. "They care a lot for each other, they care a lot about the success of the other guy and they got their backs. It is a genuine caring. These guys have bonded and we knew from camp we had an opportunity to have something special."

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