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IT'S NOT A WORD THAT LEAPS IMMEDIATELY TO MIND WHEN considering the Wisconsin offense: explosive. This is a program, after all, that seemingly invented the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust attack, a team that traditionally would rather slug out a 6-3 win than air out a 33-30 victory. Yet that word—explosive—is what you repeatedly heard this summer in Madison when coaches and players giddily described what to expect from the Wisconsin attack this season.
"We have so many people coming back in all the key areas that it's going to be scary for other teams," says running back John Clay, the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. "We'll be able to run and throw with anyone in the country."
It's hard to argue with the assessment. Last year the Badgers were one of only six teams in the nation to average more than 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing a game, and they have 10 offensive starters returning. For Wisconsin to contend for its first Big Ten title since 1999, though, the defense must improve. Last season the Badgers surrendered a disappointing 21.8 points a game. Most concerning is the inexperience of the defensive line (three new starters) and the inconsistency of the secondary in 2009. (The Badgers gave up 21 TD passes.) "We made big strides in the spring with our defense," says coach Bret Bielema optimistically. "We're going to surprise some people with our talent there."
Senior Scott Tolzien emerged last season as a topflight quarterback, and he'll again have the luxury of handing the ball to Clay, who last season led the conference in rushing with 1,517 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. Last winter the 6' 1", 248-pound Clay had surgeries to remove bone spurs from his left ankle and clean out bone fragments from his right. (His left ankle has bothered him since he injured it playing a Pop Warner game in seventh grade.) He expects to be able to cut even more sharply this season than he did in '09.
"I don't think there's a running back in the country who has John's combination of size, speed and power," says Tolzien. "He's a beast. But if you shut him down, we believe we can beat you through the air."
For the Badgers to win the Big Ten, that kind of offensive versatility—O.K., explosiveness—is precisely what they will need.
COACH Bret Bielema (5th year)
38-14 (20-12 in Big Ten)