Getting pressured by his coaching staff to try and drop the extra pounds, the 245-pound sophomore punished a bewildered Minnesota defensive line for 184 yards and three touchdowns, a big reason UW beat its border rivals for the sixth-straight year, this time by the score of 31-28 victory at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday.
"Hand the ball to the big boy, that's all we have to do," junior safety Jay Valai said. "We are very confident in him and he is very confident in us."
There was nobody hotter for the Badgers (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) than Clay, especially in the second half. After carrying the ball six times for only 25 yards and a two-yard score in the first half, Clay ran rampant in the final 30 minutes.
He carried the ball 11 times for 78 yards in the third quarter, including a one-yard touchdown with four minutes, 33 seconds left that gave UW its first lead of the half. One series later, Clay had nine carries for 77 yards, a drive that ended with a Lance Kendricks touchdown catch.
"I thought he was just an animal," quarterback Scott Tolzien said. "He was punishing guys, and our offensive line was huge today. Minnesota knew we were running the ball. We knew we were running ball, and that's just awesome … They were finishing blocks."
Expected to be the starter entering fall camp, Clay dropped roughly 15 pounds since the middle of last season and came into the season with the expectation of knowing 100 percent of the playbook and to have his body in the proper shape to endure a 13-game schedule.
Through five games, Clay has 582 yards and seven touchdowns, showing he can handle being the workhorse of the Wisconsin offense.
"He's a big, strong, physical guy who can get behind that big line that they've got and we just didn't do a good job of getting to the line of scrimmage like we wanted to," Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said. "They got some significant rushing yards."
The Badgers also got some significant turnovers at opportune times against the Gophers (3-2, 1-1). A week after turning four turnovers into 21 points against Michigan State, the Badgers turned three turnovers into 14 points. The only turnover that didn't translate into points was the final one, as O'Brien Schofield stripped Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber with 30 seconds left to seal the UW victory.
"Today, we showed that we can endure and persevere through anything," Schofield said. "It's just proving that this year's team can fight through any adversity that we go through."
Although Wisconsin started fast (turning a Minnesota fumble on its opening drive into a Clay two-yard touchdown run), the Badgers couldn't sustain it. After Weber led the Gophers to a field goal on the next possession, Tolzien finally showed that he was human, failing to see Gopher linebacker Nate Triplett on a slant route intended for wide receiver Nick Toon.
The result was an interception return down to the UW 10, which Minnesota cashed in two plays later with an Eric Decker touchdown.
"I saw a window and I thought I could stick it in there," Tolzien said. "The linebacker made a real good read on it, a real good play. Good play by him, bad play by me."
It got worse for Tolzien early in the third quarter, getting stripped on a scramble up the middle to give Minnesota field position at the UW 44.
Even so, Tolzien never wavered or lost confidence in himself, especially on third down. Entering the game completing 24-of-33 passes for 274 yards on third down, Tolzien went 5-for-8 for 66 yards against the Gophers, all of his completions resulting in first downs.
"I do have confidence that I can still make plays and put defense on their heels," said Tolzien, who also ran a 47-yard naked bootleg that set up the winning score. "It's all about moving the chains, especially with our offense."
Although Wisconsin held an 11-point lead with less than seven minutes to go, the Gophers made the Badgers sweat.
After Wisconsin and Minnesota traded touchdowns and the Gophers defense got the ball back one minute, 43 seconds left, the Wisconsin defense held its ground, ending the threat with Schofield sack and strip.
Although they had their hiccups, Wisconsin's defense was solid after halftime, limiting the Gophers to only 119 yards of total offense. Other than Decker's touchdown and Minnesota's 209 total yards in the first half, the Badgers' red-zone defense was vital in UW facing only a 13-10 halftime deficit.
Minnesota ventured into Wisconsin's red zone three times and in 14 plays run, the Gophers gained 19 yards (1.4 yards per play), yielding just the touchdown to Decker, a series of events that were key is keeping the axe in Madison for another season.
"The axe means pride, it means a victory and it gives you bragging rights for the year," sophomore cornerback Aaron Henry said. "We knew we would be fighting for our lives … and we went out there and took care of business. Our players stepped up to the challenge."