MADISON, Wis. -- There are 29 plaques lining the wall inside Wisconsin's running back room to commemorate every 1,000-yard rusher in school history. These tangible measurements of success demonstrate tradition and illustrate expectations for future players to match, a yardstick on which all will be judged.
At Wisconsin, more so than most schools, a particular sense of pride permeates on the program's ability to run the ball, to impose a will and wear down an opponent at the line of scrimmage. Consider that, a Wisconsin running back has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in 20 of the last 22 seasons. That is no accident, of course. So the team meeting room display represents a reminder of hard work for all to see.
"I think it's important that the guys understand the history," Badgers running backs coach John Settle said. "We always talk about the standard being the standard. So I think it's a visual aid helping the guys when they come in. They see all the guys in the history of the program that's had a 1,000-yard season."
Anticipation ran high that Wisconsin could easily continue its remarkable string of running game prosperity and add yet another coveted plaque to the meeting room wall. But for the first time since 2004, this season threatens to pass without a single 1,000-yard rusher on the team. Halfway through the regular season, no Badgers tailback is on pace to reach that mark.
Barring an unforeseen collapse, Wisconsin will play at least 13 games by earning a bowl bid. In order to reach 1,000 yards over a 13-game season, a running back must average 76.9 yards per game. The Badgers' top rusher, Dare Ogunbowale, is averaging 71.0 yards per game. The team's other regular tailback, Taiwan Deal, is averaging 59.5 yards and could miss time with a left ankle sprain after gaining eight yards last week on four carries.
Several factors are at play for the diminished run-game returns in a most unusual Badgers season. Wisconsin lost its star running back, Corey Clement, to sports hernia surgery. He carried only eight times in the season opener against Alabama and hasn't played since. Clement, who could return later this month or in early November, was expected to be one of the top tailbacks in the Big Ten, if not the country.
Compounding the run game issues has been inexperience on the offensive line. Three redshirt freshmen have started and the Badgers could be on their fifth line combination in seven games if center Dan Voltz can't recover from a left elbow injury by Saturday. Wisconsin also is so thin at tailback that it used true freshman Alec Ingold on Saturday against Nebraska. Three weeks ago, he was playing inside linebacker and had never taken a carry in a college game.
Since 1990, Wisconsin's leading receiver has outgained its leading rusher just twice: in 2001 and 2003. But this season, receiver Alex Erickson (463 yards) has amassed more yards than Ogunbowale (426). Twice already, the Badgers have passed more than they have run in a game, including in the team's 23-21 victory against Nebraska last Saturday.
Quarterback Joel Stave became the first player in school history to pass at least 50 times in a winning effort. Ogunbowale carried 18 times for 117 yards in the game. But, like the offensive line, he has been inconsistent. He rushed for 28 yards against Iowa and nine yards against Alabama.
"It's just a bunch of one-mores," Ogunbowale said of the overall run game struggles. "If we get one more block here, if we get one more read by us, one more cut, that's really what it is. When we all get on the same page, I think our running game will improve greatly."
For now, everything has yet to click, though it very well could this week. Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) plays host to Purdue (1-5, 0-2) at noon ET Saturday. Purdue ranks 110th nationally in run defense, surrendering 215.2 yards per game, and allowed an anemic Minnesota offense to run for 326 yards last week.
Some might consider the 1,000-yard mark to be an arbitrary number, but its importance at Wisconsin is real. Badgers left tackle Tyler Marz said that on a recruiting visit in 2010, Settle handed him pictures of the last four running backs to reach 1,000 yards. The pitch: Be a part of an offensive line that blocks for the best tailbacks in the country.
"That's kind of what he sold me on and sold Wisconsin as," Marz said. "He pointed out that it was because of the guys up front. That's something you cherish."
Fans have grown accustomed to seeing eye-popping rushing totals. In 2010, Wisconsin nearly had three 1,000-yard rushers, with John Clay and James White hitting the mark and Montee Ball missing it by four yards. Last season, Melvin Gordon rushed for 2,587 yards, the second-best total in FBS history.
For those yearning for the past, Settle hammered home the message about this year's team, a very different bunch still trying to find its way.
"We do not have a Melvin Gordon, OK?" Settle said. "So it's going to be a group effort. … I know that we started the season with high aspirations, and everybody wants to be a 1,000-yard rusher, wants to keep the streak going and all that kind of stuff. For me, it's about preparing guys week in and week out and getting wins."