MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin freshman James White is disappointed Ohio State never bothered to contact him last year as a prep star in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. John Clay is fueled by everyone else's doubts.
Together, the Badgers' running back duo is using perceived slights as motivation when top-ranked Ohio State comes to Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday night. Both will need to be in starring roles if Wisconsin is able to knock off a No. 1 team for the first time since 1981.
White was contacted by about half the Big Ten teams during his final season, selecting Wisconsin (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) for its development of running backs. He came in third in fall camp but quickly climbed the depth chart with his shifty moves and ability to escape during plays that seem to be going nowhere.
White has run for 485 yards and scored all eight of his touchdowns in the last three games. His 7.7 yards per carry average would shatter the school's record by more than a full yard if he keeps the pace. He said Ohio State (6-0, 2-0) never made contact with him and he hasn't forgotten.
"It's good to get to show them what they missed out on," White said. "Just go out there and perform the best you can and make them regret not making an offer and things like that."
White is the type of athlete that Wisconsin hasn't been able to recruit with success: He's more finesse and has the ability to cut back on plays, even though at times he'll run laterally to avoid going down early.
"You don't want to cut and there be somebody right there coming to smack you in the mouth. You've got to scan the defense and take like a picture of a defense while you're running," White said. "When you make a cut, you've got to be confident in it and know that nobody is going to be there and accelerate as soon as you make it."
Ohio State sees White's ability from film study.
"They get the guys moving, going side to side, and then he cuts it back on them. All of a sudden you see those big running backs against a safety in an open space and it's not really a pretty sight to see," defensive lineman Dexter Larimore said. "If everybody's just running around like crazy men trying to get to the ball, they cut it back and all of a sudden they've got a big gain on you."
The bigger question tied to White's emergence was how Clay would handle the change from being a 25- to 30-carry feature back to someone used less. It's been better than expected.
The reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year has stayed fresh and had his best game yet last Saturday, scoring three touchdowns in a win over Minnesota. He wasn't happy about being perceived as a guy who has slowed down despite rushing for 692 yards and nine TDs in Wisconsin's first six games.
"(I'm) just trying to go out there trying to prove to people what I'm capable of doing. Just trying to stop the talking or rumors or whatnot. I just want to go out and produce for my team, that's my main goal," Clay said.
What did Clay hear?
"That I was not the old me, or not the same anymore," he said. "They're saying I'm not producing like I was last year."
If Clay has been disappointed in splitting the workload, he hasn't said it.
He also has downplayed the pain that still remains after offseason surgery on both ankles. Clay said he has shooting pain sometimes when he's hit low and that the ankles throb while he's on the sideline. Still, he refused to say he was any less than 95 percent healthy.
"When I get back out there, all the adrenaline going, the pain goes away," he said.
The 248-pound Clay certainly has motivation against Buckeyes, who have beaten the Badgers the last two years and held him to 59 yards in 2008 and 69 yards last year in the process. Clay has 36 career rushing touchdowns, but none against Ohio State.
"He's a big back, a big physical runner, but we're a physical defense," Buckeyes cornerback Devon Torrence said. "I'm just going to go chop him down as soon as he busts through the hole. I'm not going to be scared or anything. This is football and this is why we play it, to be physical and have fun."
Wisconsin says it plans to have fun, too. The running backs say they won't let the hype of hosting No. 1 for the first time in 13 years get in the way of executing their plan.
"This is why you come to the Big Ten. You want to compete against the best teams," White said. "Ohio State is the best team in the nation right now. That's what you go out there and live for. You go out there, play the physical game the way it's supposed to be played and hopefully come out with a win."
(This version CORRECTS grammar error in 16th paragraph.)