MADISON, Wis. – James White sent the message early.
The Wisconsin senior running back took the handoff on the game’s second play from scrimmage from quarterback Joel Stave, cut inside, found a hole in the Massachusetts football team’s defense and raced into the open field for a 47-yard gain. That put the No. 23 Badgers in UMass territory and set up Stave for a 4-yard touchdown run to give his team the early, 7-0 lead.
That was the beginning of a long afternoon for the UMass run defense.
Wisconsin finished Saturday’s season-opening contest with 393 total rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns and three different running backs eclipsing the 100-yard mark in a 45-0 win over the Minutemen at Camp Randall Stadium.
It was just the third time in school history that the Badgers had three different players run for over 100 yards in a single game. The last time came against Nebraska in last year’s Big Ten championship game on Dec. 1, 2012.
This time, it was the UMass defense that fell victim.
“I don’t think we played that well on defense,” UMass linebacker Stanley Andre said. “We definitely need to be more fundamentally sound. They executed, I feel like we executed for a certain portion of time. We just let big plays get ahead of us and that’s essentially what it was.”
Sophomore Melvin Gordon led all rushers with 144 yards on 13 attempts, one of which went 70 yards for a back-breaking score late in the second quarter.
The Minutemen had just blown a chance to cut the deficit to 10-3 with just under four minutes left in the half when Blake Lucas missed a 47-yard field goal attempt. And Gordon made them pay two plays later with the longest run of his career. Just like that, Wisconsin led 17-0.
“It’s probably just not being in the right place at the right time because we have good players on the defense,” Andre said. “I have confidence in our defense; I have confidence in our corners; I have confidence in our secondary, our outside linebackers, we’re all good players. We probably just weren’t in the right places at the right time. Usually when that happens a team will exploit you.”
White and freshman running back Corey Clement were equally successful in carving up the UMass defense. The senior ran for 143 yards on 11 attempts (13 yards per carry) and had a 51-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter.
Clement, on the other hand, became the first Badger in nearly seven years to run for over 100 yards in his debut. The true freshman had 101 rushing yards and a 23-yard score in garbage duty.
“Their running game has been honed over two decades,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said of Wisconsin. “Recruiting a certain profile, offensive lineman, running back, tight ends, you honestly, you could’ve been watching 1992 or 1988 Badgers with coach (Barry) Alvarez with the same plays, just different guys doing the same things.”
The Minutemen were up against a starting offensive line that averages nearly 322 pounds. Wisconsin’s size was a clear mismatch for UMass’ defensive front seven, which ran a 3-4 defense with linebackers attacking the edges for most of the contest and still couldn’t get in position to make plays in the backfield.
There may have been more size to the Badgers than the Minutemen are accustomed to, and it turned out to be a key component to Wisconsin’s success on the ground, but Andre saw that as no excuse for their inability to stop the run.
“Wherever you go, wherever you play, you’re gonna find big cats so it doesn’t really matter how big they are,” Andre said. “That’s not a factor that affects the game. It’s all about where you fit in, where you’re playing and I don’t think we were in the right place at the right time.”
The Badgers, however, couldn’t help but credit the big guys up front.
“We have a great offensive line,” White said. “We have a lot of confidence in them. There’s a lot of change this year, but those guys work hard every day at practice, so we have the utmost confidence in them. They get the job done each and every week.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.