Competition drives UW's 3-headed monster

LOS ANGELES -- Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle has a theory on what happens to a running back who gets too comfortable in his role.

"He starts to lack details and ultimately, he can cost a team," Settle said. "He really never gives himself a chance individually to reach his full potential. That’s something we always talk about. Every time we take the field, we want to be the best group on the field, the best prepared."

By most measures, Wisconsin boasts the best group of running backs in the country. Settle makes sure he has the best-prepared group by never letting the players get too comfortable.

The Badgers' three-headed monster goes up against the nation's top-ranked defense in TCU on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

Wisconsin is the nation's only team that boasts three backs with at least 800 rushing yards: true freshman James White (1,029), junior John Clay (936) and sophomore Montee Ball (864). They have combined for 44 rushing touchdowns, 510 total touches and, perhaps most impressive, only one fumble.

If Ball has a big performance and Clay a typical one in the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin will become the first team in FBS history to boast three 1,000-yard running backs in a season.

"We all want each other to get 1,000 yards," Clay said. "James got his, I’m close to mine and Montee is close. It would be great for us."

Backfield production like Wisconsin's this fall doesn't just happen.

There are some circumstantial factors, including a knee injury to Clay opening the door for Ball to emerge down the stretch in Big Ten play.

But all three backs agree that their success is rooted in competition. From spring practice through training camp through the grind of the season, no Badgers' back has his role set in stone. The depth chart is always changing.

"We’ve got to make sure we do the right things with the reps we get, just being accountable with everything we do," Clay said.

As Settle explains, "As much as I love all of them, my loyalty is to the university, to make sure that we're doing everything we can to win a ballgame."

Ball is the best example of how the Badgers' constant competition can benefit the team. After backing up Clay in 2009, he lost his job to White early this fall. Rather than pout or tune out, Ball recognized he needed to make a greater commitment in film study and other areas and rededicated himself.

When both Clay and White went down with injuries Oct. 23 at Iowa, Ball stepped in and stepped up with several big plays as Wisconsin rallied for a 31-30 win. Ball then surged down the stretch, racking up 645 rush yards and 13 touchdowns in the final four games.

"It keeps you going, it keeps you pushing," Ball said of the competition. "If a coach just tells you you're the starter from here on out, then you wouldn't work as hard. That's why I love it when they tell you, 'We can take it away just as fast.' It keeps me studying more, watching film more and doing a lot more overtime."

Wisconsin's entitlement-free environment also allowed for a player like White to emerge.

When White arrived on campus this summer, he was looking up at the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year (Clay) and a player with nearly 100 carries the previous season (Ball).

"I didn't know if I was going to be redshirted or play," White said.

He played plenty, leading the team in rushing en route to Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.

The 5-10, 198-pound White added a new layer to the Badgers' rushing attack. At 6-1 and 248 pounds, Clay is the classic Wisconsin power back, and Ball (5-11, 236) also fits the traditional mold.

But Wisconsin lacked a back with home run ability, and White is a heavy hitter. He has Wisconsin's three longest runs of the season (66 yards, 61 yards, 44 yards).

"The thing with him is you do not have to block every guy on defense," Settle said. "He's going to win a one-on-one, and sometimes he can make two people miss. He’s that added dimension that we needed."

The backs' stylistic differences are obvious, and they force opposing defenses to play at different speeds. They also test an opponent's physical and mental endurance. Tackling the bruising Clay takes a toll on any defender, and chasing White and Ball in the open field isn't much fun, either.

"It really messes them up throughout the game," White said. "They don't know what to prepare for."

TCU has the daunting task of preparing for the Badgers' triple threat. The Horned Frogs rank second nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 89.2 yards per game. But no team has held Wisconsin to fewer than 142 rush yards this season, and the Badgers have eclipsed 200 rush yards in seven games and 300 rush yards in four games, including each of their final three.

Sometime after the Rose Bowl, Clay will decide whether to enter the NFL draft or finish his final season at Wisconsin.

If he returns, White and Ball will welcome him. And then they'll make him work to keep his starting job.

"We all love to get pushed and have the pressure on our shoulders like that," Ball said. "If not, then why are you here playing football? That’s what Wisconsin football's all about."