Wisconsin's James White closing the gap

It's not a surprise that Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema fielded several questions about one of his running backs during Tuesday's Big Ten teleconference.

The surprise: the back in question wasn't John Clay.

True freshman James White continues to be the talk of Wisconsin's offensive backfield, especially as the Badgers try to bounce back from last week's loss to Michigan State. White earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors for the second consecutive week after rushing for 98 yards and two touchdowns on only 10 carries against the Spartans. He had 235 all-purpose yards in the game.

Through five games, White ranks ninth in the Big Ten in rushing (73.4 ypg) with a sparkling 8.3 yards-per-carry average. He ranks fourth in the league in all-purpose yards (141 ypg), also serving as the Badgers' primary kick returner.

"James has continued to impress us really in all situations," Bielema said. "We put him in first down, second down, third down, he's been good for us in the return game as well. He's a kid that's eager to please."

White's surge has generated talk that he should start ahead of Clay, who has been steady (116.2 yards per game) but not as explosive as many had expected.

Always-candid Badgers running backs coach John Settle had some interesting comments Sunday about the backfield situation.

"This week is going to be an important week for John and for James. We're going to put the competition out there and open it up. ... I want to let them know how I see things, let them know the race is tightening. And the thing that has always been discussed with them is that we're going to play production."

You can't argue with Settle's thinking. It just sounds odd when one of the players being discussed is the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate.

Clay had a streak of 10 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances end against Michigan State, but he continues to average 6.2 yards per carry with six touchdowns.

So why is White being considered as the starter? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus has an excellent breakdown.

Overall, 18 of Clay's 94 carries (19.1 percent) this season have gone for 10 or more yards. The average distance of those runs has been 16.3 yards. However, too often the plays have been blocked cleanly and a defensive back has made a one-on-one tackle, generally at Clay's ankles.

"That's what is showing up on film," Settle said. "Those are the things we've got to get corrected."

Overall, 12 of White's 44 carries (27.3 percent) have gone for 10 yards or more. The average distance of those runs has been 20.8 yards. White has consistently displayed the ability to make the first defender miss and then outrun the second and third would-be tacklers.

Translation: White is showing home-run ability, while Clay is being held to singles and doubles.

Has White's surge served notice to Clay?

"Not by what I'm seeing," Bielema said. "John is very aware that the more success James has, the more it helps him. He doesn't have to play every down, his legs can stay fresh ... He isn't going into the season to become the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He just wants to win ballgames."