Wisconsin tailback Anthony Davis is expected to return to action at full strength Saturday against Penn State, three weeks after suffering a sprained ankle in the first quarter of the Badgers 23-5 loss to UNLV. With Davis' return the Badgers regain one of college football's most dynamic weapons. Davis had a gaudy 414 yards and four touchdowns on 59 carries in Wisconsin's first two contests this season. He injured his ankle at the end of his second run against the Rebels, finishing with 11 yards.
In Davis' absence the past two weeks, however, Wisconsin's reserve tailbacks have stepped up and played well, contributing back-to-back 100-yard, three-touchdown performances.
Two weeks ago against North Carolina, second team tailback Dwayne Smith ran for 73 yards before suffering a strained groin midway through the contest. Far from abandoning the run, Wisconsin put the game on the shoulders of its offensive line and redshirt freshman, third-string tailback Booker Stanley. The response was loud and clear; Stanley ran 28 times for 119 yards and three touchdowns.
Last week against Illinois the Badgers almost completely departed from the use of spread formations and their much-hyped passing game. Smith, a sophomore, returned to action and ran for 193 of Wisconsin's 307 rushing yards.
"I like the fact that we have three backs that have proven they're game-worthy," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "That was quite a story in Booker…our top two tailbacks were down for the entire second half and he rushes for 119 yards against North Carolina. We've never been in that position before where our third guy could go in and do that.
"Then, to see Dwayne come back this past week and have the day he did. I really thought when you watched the film and studied the film that he made a lot of yardage after contact. He was very physical and really into the game."
Like Stanley the previous week and Davis against Akron earlier this season, Smith garnered three touchdowns versus the Illini. Monday, Smith was named Big Ten offensive player of the week.
"Our offensive line and (fullback) Matt Bernstein, they were out there blocking great," Smith said. "The holes that they opened up—I had no other choice but to get that many yards.
"You can expect to have five yards a carry running behind those guys. We have to have the best blocking group in the nation."
Wisconsin may also have the most dynamic trio of tailbacks in the nation. The Badgers are the only team in Division I with three different players who have notched three rushing touchdowns in a single game and the only team with three players who have reached the 100-yard rushing plateau in a single game.
"When you know you can dominate the line of scrimmage and just run the ball down people's throats it is a great feeling," Smith said.
Davis' absence could have led to more reliance on quarterback Jim Sorgi's arm, but circumstance prevailed. Wisconsin's offensive line consistently controlled the line of scrimmage against North Carolina and Illinois, allowing the Badgers to pick their spots to throw and keep talented opposing quarterbacks—North Carolina's Darian Durant and Illinois' Jon Beutjer—off the field.
Another factor is the persistent blitzing Wisconsin has faced. Sorgi was sacked eight times against UNLV and, while sacked only once last week, took a few very strong hits from the Illini, one knocking him out of the game for a series in the third quarter. Running the ball and relying on play-action passes, as the Badgers did against Illinois, neutralized the Illini's blitz for most of the game—namely the 63 times Wisconsin ran the ball.
After opening with 34 passing attempts against West Virginia, Sorgi has thrown 25, 25, 20 and 12 passes in each successive game.
"In this particular case, our quarterback was hit and rattled," Alvarez said. "We decided that we were not going to put him in jeopardy. We are not going to depart from our general philosophy where we would like to be balanced, yet in this particular case we felt we had to lean on the run a little bit more."
Wisconsin has had an 1,000-yard rusher in 10-straight seasons and currently has three tailbacks who have run for 1,046 yards and 11 touchdowns. Davis leads the pack with 425 yards and four touchdowns, with Smith (411, 4) and Stanley (210, 3) also providing solid production. Their combined efforts have helped place Wisconsin ninth nationally in rushing yards (220.2 yards per game).
"We just kept rolling from last week and kept pounding the ball," left tackle Morgan Davis said after the Illinois game. "We were just running the ball and having some fun out there. We were going like clockwork. Wait until ‘AD' (Anthony Davis) comes back and we'll see what happens with him. The sky is the limit from there."
Saturday, Davis is expected to recommence as Wisconsin's workhorse. Smith, as he did early in the season, will likely enter the game on the team's third series and rotate in throughout the contest to keep Davis fresh. Stanley will return to spot duty.
"I can't wait to see (Davis) back out there," Smith said. "That is going to make our offense more explosive."