For Clay, the 2009 season prior to facing Ohio State has been up and down. To start the season, he was taken out of the starting lineup because of his counterpart performing better than he was, and then inserted back in when he impressed with the coaching staff with a stronger commitment. For the ultimate low, he fumbled three times against Wofford, while the high came against Minnesota, where he posted 32 carries for 184 yards and three touchdowns.
When you see these differences so early in the season, you have to wonder what's going on with Clay. And more importantly, can Wisconsin count on him what it needs him the most?
The answer to that question came against Ohio State because Clay will be heavily counted on against top ranked teams. Backs that get the majority of their yards during garbage time or against lowly ranked opponents are not dependable. Those backs are for fantasy football. Instead what Wisconsin needs is a back that keeps moving the chains when the opportunity presents itself and the team needs first downs.
Wisconsin should be familiar with these concerns about its running back. In fact, Clay has first hand experience with it.
The man Clay took over for, P.J. Hill, had a reputation for not producing big in the biggest of games. Whether its fair or not to criticize him – because sometimes the entire team played poorly – nonetheless he had some less than stellar performances: a 2.2 yard per carry average and no touchdowns in three games against Michigan, in the 2006 Capitol One Bowl against Arkansas he posted a 1.9 ypc average and no touchdowns, and during the toughest five game stretch during last season he averaged just 46 yards per game.
A back shouldn't be judged entirely by numbers because at various factors can dictate statistics. But when the same types of numbers repeatedly happen (as they did with Hill), it does seem to be a pattern. Maybe Hill just couldn't put it all together during the most difficult games.
After Clay's performance against the best defense in the Big Ten, it looks like he might be better at performing than his predecessor during crunch time.
Let's start with the downside. Ohio State stopped Clay several times during the first half when the score was close when an extra few yards would have dramatically helped the Badgers. Clay's 11 carries for 27 yards for the first 30 minutes were disappointing.
However, the biggest cause for those results was not Clay, but Ohio State's defense line. In impressive fashion, it held him in check with consistent contact.
"The defensive line rotation and the depth that they got, to be able to keep coming with new guys," said coach Bret Bielema. "It obviously was a huge factor against our offense today."
But true to his up and down fashion, Clay did come away with several rushes that kept drives alive in the first half. On a third and one at midfield, Clay plowed right through the gut of Ohio State's defense for a solid nine-yard gain. On the same drive, on a crucial fourth down, he powered his way through for another first down.
"We were grinding on them pretty good," said Bielema, "John Clay continued to do well."
In the second half, when the score quickly became out of range due to awful special teams play and costly turnovers, Clay simply wasn't used much. His totals for the game (20 carries for 59 yards and no touchdowns) are disappointing, but there's a reason for that.
"When it got to a two score game we started to look for some things downfield [in the passing game], but our offense was able to grind it out," said Bielema.
As more and more passing plays were called, the defense generated more pressure and caused more turnovers (two interceptions). And when Clay was in, everyone watching knew it was most likely going to be a running play – short distance for the first down, first downs, etc.
Being down by a lot limits the types of plays an offense can run and that hurt Clay's production on Saturday. So it's not fair to criticize Clay entirely for his porous statistics.
Judging by how often quarterback Scott Tolzien got sacked and hurried; Wisconsin's offensive line certainly had problems and Ohio State's defensive line was impressive.
"Their [defensive line] is very excellent. They have a fast defense that's built off speed," said Clay. "They have great lateral movement and their defense came downhill fast."
Given their impressive defense, taking his game to a higher level against the Buckeyes would have been the perfect chance for Clay.
Unfortunately he wasn't able to, but it doesn't mean he's not capable of doing so. In fact, several times he made several impressive rushes that were critical to keeping the score close in the first half.
"We tried to use our power to our advantage and slow down their speed game," said Clay. "They were playing the deep ball so it was good for us to [keep running]."
It's impossible to predict, but if the score had been closer in the second half, one gets the impression that Clay would have put together several successful drives. Because his game is built on wearing a defense down, especially a lighter and quicker defense like Ohio State, he might have broken off some runs that didn't happen during the first two quarters.
More than anything else, that's hope. His statistics against Ohio State might not be vastly better than his predecessor, but unlike Hill, Clay has only had one slightly disappointing game. Let's see what happens when he gets another chance, like next Saturday against Iowa.