For the past decade and beyond, Wisconsin has made its mark in the Big Ten Conference and on the national landscape with a beefy offensive line and a stable of bruising running backs. Ron Dayne won the Heisman Trophy in 1999. Montee Ball held the NCAA record for career touchdowns. Melvin Gordon had a 408-yard game last season. Stopping the Badgers has always started at the line of scrimmage.
This season, though, Wisconsin has been different. Running back Corey Clement, Gordon's backup last season who was thought to have an outside shot at the Heisman, was hurt early in the season and has missed seven games. He returned last week with 115 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries in a blowout victory against Rutgers. But the Badgers have struggled on the ground and currently rank ninth in the Big Ten in rushing offense, while quarterback Joel Stave has turned in a solid season.
So when Maryland hosts Wisconsin on Saturday at Byrd Stadium, the Terps know they'll need a complete defensive performance to avoid a repeat of last season's 52-7 thrashing at the hands of the Badgers.
"As far as stopping the run, that's always how we start our defensive game plan," interim coach Mike Locksley said Tuesday. "The last couple of weeks, I feel like defensively we've done some things where we've been able to contain the run and force teams to play left-handed to where they throw the football, and a lot of that is done by how we attack the line of scrimmage by outnumbering the box."
In Clement's absence, Wisconsin struggled to get consistent production out of backups Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal, a DeMatha product. So the onus for getting production from the offense fell on Stave, who has been productive after a down year last season. Stave ranks fifth among Big Ten quarterbacks in yards per game and eighth in efficiency.
And Stave has found a reliable target in senior wide receiver Alex Erickson, who is third in the Big Ten with 6.4 catches per game and has 58 catches for 748 yards and three touchdowns. It's another challenge for a Maryland secondary that has been maligned at times. If the front seven can bottle up Clement, the defensive backs know they'll be tested by Stave. Erickson had five catches for 121 yards and a score in last season's meeting.
"Wisconsin's a great team," cornerback Will Likely said. "Got probably one of the top running backs in the Big Ten, so our focus is stop the run and make throw guys throw the ball. They have pretty good receivers out there, too. We've just got to do our part and maintain it."
But if Clement is back at full strength, Wisconsin can go to him early and often. Last season, he rushed for 949 yards and nine touchdowns as a backup to Gordon. In the Badgers' blowout win over Maryland, Clement had a career-high 17 carries for 90 yards and a score.
It won't be easy for him, though. Since the start of Big Ten play, Maryland ranks fifth in rushing defense by allowing 134.5 yards per game on the ground. In their past two games against Penn State and Iowa, the Terps have allowed 158 rushing yards in a pair of stout performances.
"That's what they want to do," defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski said. "They give you different complications from different formations. They do a lot of shifts and stuff. They're big up front. They can get on people and move the offensive line. Their running backs don't need a lot of space. If there's a crease, they'll hit it. That's what they do."
Wisconsin is in its first year under coach Paul Chryst, a former Badgers player and offensive coordinator from 2005-11. With Chryst at the helm instead of former coach Gary Andersen, Locksley expects to see the Badgers use a different scheme than what they used to gash the Terps a year ago.
Clement, though, is healthy now. He rushed for 100 yards in a game four times last season and is a big-play threat. Though Stave and Erickson have a dangerous connection, a clicking running game gives Wisconsin a better opportunity to control the clock. After all, it's Wisconsin. It's the Badgers' pedigree.
"It's going to be really important for us to do a great job of being gap sound and doing a great job of team defense, meaning we've got to make sure we've got 11 hats on the football each and every time," Locksley said. "He's a strong runner, has the ability to make guys miss in the open field, but also has the power to run through tackles."