Marquee matchup

Brian Calhoun and Kenny Irons will be the offensive focal points of Monday's Capital One Bowl

ORLANDO, Fla. — Wisconsin fans have seen their share of running back duels this season, having watched junior Brian Calhoun square off against the likes of Minnesota's Laurence Maroney and Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton among others.

In Monday's Capital One Bowl, they will get to see another such game—and perhaps the last one involving Calhoun.

Even though Auburn lost the likes of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown a year ago, it has brought back a strong running game once again, this time with the ball in junior Kenny Irons' hands.

"They're running game is very well established," UW defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. "They [have] principles that they carried over from a year ago. Obviously the faces have changed, the running backs in particular."

The faces have changed during this season as well.

Junior Tre Smith got the starting nod in the Tigers' first two games of the year, but Irons has started all but one game since, and after posting just 34 yards on 14 carries in the first two weeks, he has run for at least 100 yards in eight of the last nine games, including six in a row.

Irons has become somewhat of a Calhoun-like workhorse as the season has progressed, carrying the ball at least 27 times in five of the last six games.

"I knew he had the talent, and when he got his chance he proved it and he's had a great year," Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox said.

The Dacula, Ga. native's efforts earned him unanimous All-SEC first-team honors as he led the conference with 109.5 rushing yards per game and amassed 1,205 rushing yards on the year, the ninth-best all-time by an Auburn back.

On the other side of the ball, UW junior Brian Calhoun has become the next in a long line of outstanding Badger running backs, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in his first season with Wisconsin after transferring from Colorado.

Auburn has also seen some tough backs this year, including Alabama's Kenneth Darby and Arkansas' Darren McFadden, but Tiger defensive coordinator David Gibbs had some high praise for Calhoun in a press conference here Thursday.

"There's a lot of great running backs out there, he's a special guy," Gibbs said. "He's not that big, but every time you turn on the tape he's breaking tackles, he's running over people, he's picking up linebackers in pass protection. He's a definite difference maker.

"Does he remind me of anybody? No. Is he as good as anybody we've seen? Yes, probably the best we've seen all year."

Where Calhoun separates himself from Irons and most other backs around the country is his ability as a receiver.

Irons has caught 13 passes all season, whereas Calhoun has been a constant threat both on the ground and through the air, grabbing 52 receptions—one shy of the team lead—for 563 yards and two touchdowns.

Gibbs knows his squad will have to look out for No. 2 as a double-threat Monday.

"He's an explosive runner with great speed, but he's also like having another receiver on the field," Gibbs said. "He's going to have the ball in his hands 30 to 40 times in this football game, and he can go the distance each and every time. Coaches say that a lot about players … this is a guy who can do it."

Not only is Calhoun a double-threat as a runner and receiver, he can hurt a team in more ways than one when he's running the ball as well.

Calhoun has shown this season that he can find the edge and explode to the outside, but he has also displayed an ability to run inside with power, which he will probably have to do considering the speed of the linebackers and defensive ends on the outside of Auburn's defense.

"He's powerful enough and tough enough where he can still run the ball inside, but at the same time he has the great speed where he can bounce around and get on the edges to go to the house," Gibbs said.

There is no doubt that both teams will be looking to establish the run, and both defensive coordinators expressed their concern over allowing big plays in that regard.

"I've been telling our players for the last month, I think they are extremely explosive on offense," Gibbs said. "Anybody who's ever played against Big Ten teams know they know how to run the ball, they know how to play physical. That's the challenge to our guys is to be able to match their intensity … and at the same time not give up big plays in the pass game."

"The key is to play sound defense and make them earn every yard that they get and don't give up the big play," Bielema said.

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