MADISON, Wis. (AP) — It was back to basics during the bye week for the Wisconsin offensive line.
The 19th-ranked Badgers are determined to get their running game back on track — regardless of whether opposing defenses decide to crowd the box.
"We have to come out, do better, open up holes for Melvin," said right tackle Rob Havenstein, referring to star tailback Melvin Gordon. "Just give him a little bit and he's going to break out for a lot of yards."
Easier said than done two weekends ago. Wisconsin walloped Western Illinois 37-3, but the running game hit a speed bump.
Gordon had just 38 yards on 17 carries. The big, tough Wisconsin offensive line had to contend with a lower-division school focused on shutting down the run.
They are determined to improve this weekend against Bowling Green. Practice time during the bye week was focused on the "fundamentals of offensive line," Havenstein said. "Getting a knock back, getting your steps in ... just a lot of techniques we have."
Havenstein said: "We had a poor performance. You know we look at ourselves, and where we need to get better."
Facing a defense focused on stopping the run is not a huge surprise for Wisconsin, especially since the Badgers (1-1) are working in a first-year starting quarterback in Tanner McEvoy, along with inexperienced receivers.
Still, this is Wisconsin, the home of collegiate tailback luminaries Ron Dayne and Montee Ball. It's a school that in recent years has featured not just one, but typically two 1,000-yard threats in the backfield.
Last year, Gordon was joined by James White — a fourth-round draft pick of the New England Patriots — in the backfield. This year, Gordon has Corey Clement as his running mate.
"You're just told to run, not think of who's in the box. That's all you can do," Clement said. "You can't really scheme once you're in the backfield. Just get what you can get. If the home run comes, it will come."
Clement talked of patience in the backfield and waiting for a hole to develop. Even against a base defense, an offense is at a slight disadvantage since a quarterback usually doesn't block.
"But we're not going to back down from anything. If you want to put nine in the box, we'll still give it our best," he said.
It's a task made more difficult with injuries to junior fullbacks Derek Watt and Derek Straus. Watt, especially, has been singled out by coach Gary Andersen as a blocker in the backfield and at tight end.
Redshirt freshman Austin Ramesh must fill in when a fullback is needed. Wisconsin is also down to two healthy scholarship running backs in Gordon and Clement with freshman Taiwan Deal out for about a month with a hand injury.
The Badgers have already decided to redshirt another freshman tailback, Caleb Kinlaw. For now, Dare Ogunbowale, a third-year sophomore, has been moved to running back from cornerback.
The most promising development for the running game might have come through the air against Western Illinois. McEvoy led the Badgers to victory by throwing for three touchdowns and running for another.
If McEvoy can improve each week through the air, that could give defenses more second thoughts about crowding the line with extra defenders to stop the run.
"We want to run the ball better. That's all of us," Andersen said. "That's everybody involved in the run game, including myself."
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