MADISON, Wis. – John Clay says he's still trying to find his timing and rhythm heading into No. 11 Wisconsin's matchup on Saturday with Arizona State. The Sun Devils plan to march to a much faster beat.
Both 2-0 teams will try to control the pace of the game using completely different strategies.
The Badgers prefer a methodical, grinding running attack using the 252-pound Clay. Arizona State tries to move so quickly it doesn't want opponents to know what hit them.
"We're always looking to march 80 yards down the field, take 8 minutes or 9 minutes and eat up the clock. That's even more emphasized against Arizona State," Wisconsin offensive lineman John Moffitt said. "The dangerous thing about that, is they have the ability to score fast."
Arizona State's spread offense led by former Michigan transfer Steven Threet stresses getting in as many snaps as possible, especially early in the game.
Threet is already well known to Badgers fans because he led the Wolverines from a 19-0 halftime deficit over Wisconsin in 2008. This year, he's completed 67 percent of his passes and is looking forward to another matchup with a Big Ten opponent.
"I've played Wisconsin before, but there's a lot of different guys running a different offense, I've got different teammates, it's obviously a different situation, but I'm just excited for the game, he said.
So is Clay.
He's run for 240 yards and four touchdowns in wins over UNLV and San Jose State. Clay says his ankles are still about 85 percent following offseason surgery on both of them.
"I haven't run like this in a long time," Clay said. "It's just getting back to the groove of it."
His numbers have been good with a 6.5 yards per carry average despite only one run of greater than 20 yards, when he gained 40 late in the game against San Jose State. He said he's taking his coaches' advice when it comes to highlight reel runs.
"I'm being patient. Let it come to you and don't force it," he said. "You take those two, three yards here and there and that big one will come out of nowhere. Just being able to stay consistent, pounding it, moving the chains and that will come when big runs will come."
It's something Arizona State knows it will have to avoid, but coach Dennis Erickson acknowledges that slowing Clay behind Wisconsin's line, averaging 323 pounds, and 320-pound fullback Ryan Groy will take the entire effort of his defense.
"They're just an extremely good offense team that believes in what they're doing — to run it first and make you stop that and then throw it. They do it awfully well," Erickson said. "When you start offensively, you start with their offensive front, how big and physical they are. We obviously haven't seen that this year and you don't see people in our league quite like that other than Stanford."
Wisconsin's mistakes have been annoying for the Badgers, but haven't cost them yet. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said they've left 35 points on the field in the first two weeks, and the Badgers have scored only seven touchdowns in 13 trips inside the 20.
"Those are money situations. So, taking care of the ball, but then that's typically when we've got to make big plays. It's a smaller field, smaller windows and you've just got to execute," quarterback Scott Tolzien said. "We've got to do everything in our power to try to maintain possession and try, like any other game, to control the clock and execute."
As the offense has sputtered, Wisconsin's defense has been somewhat stagnant, too, beyond the play of defensive end J.J. Watt. The secondary gave up 193 yards and 15 catches to a pair of freshman receivers at San Jose State. Bielema said the linebackers also share in the blame.
And if the mistakes pile up, the Sun Devils can bank on more of those quick scores.
Arizona State doesn't have a drive longer than 3 minutes, 47 seconds so far this year, while the Badgers have six of them longer than that mark. That puts Wisconsin fifth in the nation in time of possession. Arizona State is 107th out of 120.
"They are as fast as any huddle we've ever seen," Bielema said. "(It's) a dramatically different method of doing things than us, but I'll take a couple quick scores, too."