After a three fumble performance against Wofford that saw him riding the bench in the fourth quarter, Clay refused to talk to the media afterwards, not wanting to take questions on what his problems were and how he was going to fix it. The mood changed after his fumble that was one of the final nails in the coffin against Northwestern.
Clay, who lost the ball on a third down rush just passed midfield in a two-point game, was downtrodden and solemn in a heavy UW locker room, but a brief talk from Coach Bret Bielema started the change.
"I just explained to him that he didn't lose this game," Bielema said Monday. "People are going to say things and write things and the only way you control what you say is go out and speak … We moved past that day and he had a great Hawaii game and a great Miami game."
Point blank, Clay had a great season, becoming just the second sophomore in school history to rush for more than 1,500 yards (1517) and led the Big Ten with 18 rushing touchdowns, a mark that was fourth in school history. More importantly, he held UW get back on a national stage after his 122-yard, two touchdown performance earned him MVP honors in UW's Champs Sports Bowl victory over Miami.
The media certainly likes the junior from Racine now, as Clay has been on a preseason awards haul in the month of August. He was named to five different All-American teams by different publications, named first-team All-Big Ten by three different outlets and was named to the watch list for the Doak Walker Award for best collegiate running back and Maxwell and Walter Camp Award for best college athlete.
Even so, every question asked of him regarding personal awards has a familiar answer to it.
"The one thing that I have always admired about him is that he's always giving respect back to his offensive line," Bielema said. "Everybody asks him about the Heisman, but he says it's a team award and I'll get recognized for what our team does."
Good News from the Infirmary
Culmer St. Jean (ankle) returned to practice Sunday and is listed as the starting middle linebacker on the depth chart.
Recovering nicely from the procedure he had two weeks ago to clean out some scar tissue, sophomore linebacker Mike Taylor will travel to Las Vegas and this game status will be determined by his week of practice.
Bielema went on to say about the blessing fall camp has been for his team. With the only significant injury being a fractures shoulder to back-up tight end Brian Wozniak, Wisconsin has been able to handle the minor bumps and bruises while getting a closer look at some under-the-radar players during the 20 team practices before UNLV prep work.
"You saw the development of Nick Toon, more of a complete receiver more so than he has been," Bielema said. "I am really excited what he brings to the table. Two guys at the tight end positions, Jake Byrne and Jacob Pedersen, had a really nice camp. We all knew Lance was productive, but we didn't know about those other two guys. I like what those two guys will be able to bring."
Even Clay contributed to the cause. With Clay needing time to rehabilitate his two surgically-repaired ankles, the Badgers were able to get extra reps to sophomore back Montee Ball and freshman James White, two players Bielema expects to have plenty of carries on Saturday.
One player Bielema doesn't expect to get many carries is senior Zach Brown. Brown, who has battled knee tendinitis that has limited him throughout camp, will travel with the team to Las Vegas.
After a conversation between Brown, Bielema and Running Back Coach John Settle, it was determined that burning Brown's redshirt might be a beneficial decision for him and the team.
"As long as we don't get into a situation where we lose one or two of our main three guys," Bielema said.
Bielema also commented that anytime junior Bradie Ewing gets his hands on the football, ‘he looks really, really good,' and converted defensive back Kyle Zuleger, who switched to running back in the spring because of a lack of depth and turned out plenty of big gains.
"Those two guys I wouldn't be afraid at all to see," Bielema said.
Positions still up for Grabs
UW's release of the depth chart Monday saw the Badgers have nine senior starters and 10 junior starters, but there are plenty of positions still up for debate. At cornerback, Wisconsin lists senior Niles Brinkley and junior Devin Smith (UW's top nickel back) as co-cornerbacks on one side of the field and junior Antonio Fenelus and Smith as co-cornerbacks on the other side of the field.
"Really, those three guys have had the most intense battle throughout all of camp and are playing as good as I have ever seen them play," Bielema said. "Who gets the starting nod will be determined by how they practice this week … I really like what's going on there and the accountability factor all three guys are showing."
In addition to cornerbacks and right guard, frontside linebacker is between Blake Sorensen and Taylor, which is dependent on Taylor's health, and defensive end between junior Louis Nzegwu and sophomore David Gilbert. Bielema also acknowledged the battles at the wide receiver position and the battle for reps at defensive tackle between freshman Beau Allen, sophomore Eriks Briedis and redshirt freshman Ethan Hemer.
"Those positions that are slashed are legit deals," Bielema said.