MADISON - Deciding to join Wisconsin in the fall of 2012, Dare Ogunbowale knew he would need a few years in the defensive backfield before he could realistically start to add his name to the list of walk-ons who have made a major impact with the program.
He never thought it would happen at running back, let alone in a team rushing performance that ranks as the greatest in the modern era of the Big Ten.
“Dare at running back? That doesn’t make sense,” he joked.
Having been practicing as the No.3 tailback for less than a week to help the Badgers cope with their dangerously thin depth behind Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement, Ogunbowale turned nine days of prep work into 94 yards on 14 carries, an average of 6.7 yards per carry, in a 68-17 victory over Bowling Green.
Ogunbowale’s rushing performance capped a 644-yard day for the Wisconsin’s rushing offense that was full of great performances. Gordon set a career-high with 253 yards that ranked as the 10th in school history; Tanner McEvoy’s 158 yards were the most ever by a UW quarterback in a single game and Corey Clement hit the 100-yard barrier for the fourth time in his career. All those fail in comparison.
“Melvin and Corey kept joking that they were going to have a big game for me so I can get some carries in the fourth quarter and the fourth quarter was going to be yours,” said Ogunbowale. “I didn’t think the whole fourth quarter was going to be mine or I’d get 94 yards. It was fun. I didn’t know I would be the guy (the coaches) would go to after Corey and Melvin were out. I was excited to be the guy.”
The role was a huge upgrade for the 5-11, 188-pound Ogunbowale, who had been utilizing his speed and athleticism on kickoff and punt return for the Badgers.
Wisconsin has had success recruiting players like Ogunbowale before. Dezmen Southward had only played one year of organized football before the Badgers took a chance on him, watching him develop into a multi-year starter and be the team’s highest NFL draft pick last spring.
Ogunbowale was primarily a soccer player until giving football a try his junior year. As a senior, he named all-conference at defensive back after recording 38 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He also was a two-time basketball defensive player of the year, evidently taking some pointers from his cousin, Ryan Evans, who was a member of the Wisconsin men's basketball team (2009-13).
It’s a combination that piqued the interest of cornerbacks coach Ben Strickland, who offered him a chance to walk on with the football program.
“I still sometimes can’t believe that I am here,” Ogunbowale said. “Coach Strickland, for some reason, gave me an opportunity to play here after only playing two years of real football.”
Wisconsin didn’t figure to have a problem at tailback after bringing in Taiwan Deal and Caleb Kinlaw in the 2014 recruiting class, but both players have found themselves on the shelf with injuries. Coupled with UW’s top two fullbacks – Derek Watt and Derek Straus – out with injuries, UW needed someone to carry the football.
The top replacement became Ogunbowale, who impressed the offensive coaches with his ability to avoid being tackled during a special teams drill during fall camp. Throw in the fact that Ogunbowale had the intelligence (he’s majoring in biomedical engineering) to learn the playbook, UW coach Gary Andersen approached Ogunbowale with the position change during the bye week.
“He looked at me like I had 12 heads when I mentioned it to him,” said Andersen. “But he didn’t bat an eye. And it’s a great thing, too.”
“It was definitely different,” added Ogunbowale. “Running back is a lot different position than corner, but Coach (Thomas) Brown has made the transition real smooth, made sure he didn’t throw too much at me at once, but he still pushed me to make sure I learn plays. It was definitely different, but it was nice having the support of my teammates.”
It also helped having seen firsthand the commitment it takes to be effective at the position. Over the summer, Ogunbowale roomed with safety A.J. Jordan and tight end Austin Traylor, but took the most away from his fourth roommate, Melvin Gordon.
“Having Melvin as my roommate, I have probably worked harder than I ever have,” he said. “We worked hard this summer to make sure I was gaining speed, gaining strength. He’s just a ridiculously competitive guy. That’s the big thing I’ve picked up from him. He’s given me a lot of nuggets on what it takes to be a good running back.”
Getting prepared to play against South Florida (2-2) Saturday in the final nonconference game, Ogunbowale, who had to change numbers from 18 to 23 to avoid two offensive players having the same number, has built his mindset as a running back. He’s studied film, worked on further learning the offensive playbook and worked with Gordon on improving his pass protection.
Most importantly, he’s following the same approach he took into the game on Saturday; keep an open mind and have fun.
“In front of the fans at Camp Randall it was amazing,” Ogunbowale said. “It was just a great time and the offensive line made it so easy. Our scout team defense goes so hard so I was ready for it. The big thing for me was making sure I held on to the ball, and I did that fine. Getting as many yards as I can, making some big play and getting the fans excited, it was a good time.”
Although it’s unlikely he will take carries away from Gordon or Clement, Ogunbowale will likely stay busy. Kinlaw is redshirting after getting a late start in camp. Deal is trying to overcome a hand injury that will keep him out at least two more weeks.
Andersen admitted that Ogunbowale emergence makes the decision easier to redshirt Deal if his injury doesn’t improve. Ogunbowale admitted that right now he’s ready to just play football.
“I am just here to help the team in any capacity that they want me to,” said Ogunbowale. “Like I was telling the guys in the locker room, one carry a game I am happy with that. Ninety-four yards is surreal. If they call on me to get more carries in meaningful games I am all for it, but I am just working hard in meetings and practice. Whatever comes my way I’ll be ready for it.”