September 23, 2009

Clay intent on righting his wrongs

MADISON, Wis. - First starts are not supposed to play out in the ugly fashion it did for John Clay last Saturday.

When, as a player, you reach the pinnacle of having a starting title to your name things are only supposed to move forward. You aren't supposed to take a step back.

But in the unfortunate case for Clay, that is exactly what happened. Simply put, three fumbles in one game will do that to you.

"It's something that we emphasize here," UW running backs coach John Settle said Sunday night. "It's something that we emphasize in the winter. It's something we emphasize in the spring and in fall camp. We emphasize it weekly and daily.

"He knows the importance of holding onto the football."

If Clay was in tune mentally with that importance the coaching staff preaches during UW's 44-14 win on Saturday, he didn't waste much time losing it when he fumbled on the Badgers third play from scrimmage.

On the play, Clay took the ball and found open space off left tackle Gabe Carimi. He had one lonely defensive back separating him from a potential touchdown, but hesitation in the thought process of how to get around the guy led to an awkward tackle and subsequent fumble, one that was lost.

"Indecision," Settle was quick to point out. "The whole week we were talking about attacking the defenders and making them tackle us, prove that they can tackle big backs. For whatever reason, he had it in his mind that he was going to jump over him and never got the chance to get the off hand in there and cover the ball.

"Indecision cost him."

For Clay, in his first start, nerves may have very well been a theme of the day. However, Settle questioned the amount of focus the sophomore tailback had during the preparation leading into the game and was unsure if Clay was fully into it.

If that wasn't evident after the first fumble, then Clay's second fumble proved to be the final straw as far as playing time in the first half. A decision by the coaching staff meant to let Clay think about his wrongdoings.

"I was trying to hurry up and get back out there and just try to make up for the fumbles I had and just try to prove that this is not a problem," Clay, who was able to rush for 70 yards in the game, said. "I was really forcing it when I should have sat back, relaxed and collected my thoughts instead of just going out there and not thinking and trying to make a play right away."

By the time the midway intermission rolled around, the Badgers had a very comfortable 31-0 lead over Wofford. When the third quarter began, the starters only played in one or two more series. For Clay, his day was done when he coughed up his third fumble early on in the second half.

"It was just me not staying focused," Clay said. "I was too busy just trying to hurry up and make the big play and overcome the fumbles and just not staying focused. That really made me, I guess you could say, fumble.

"But (it was me) just not staying mentally ready."

It didn't help when Zach Brown, who had fumbled early in the game himself, was able to correct his mistakes and eventually capitalize on two touchdown runs later in the game.

That, or when freshman Erik Smith racked up 54 yards on only 10 carries and a touchdown, most of which came while Clay was on the sideline watching.

Needless to say, when that series of events unfolded in front of Clay and the other 78,000 people in attendance, confidence was be rattled. It's natural. When such an embarrassing, almost fluke of a performance, is put on in front of such a loud and intent crown, it's easy to see how thoughts can start racing through one's head.

So that is the task at hand for Clay this week and it's one that begins with restoring the confidence within himself, his teammates and his coaches as they prepare for Michigan State.

"It's something that I can work on," Clay said. "Hopefully they've seen what I did in the past and it (fumbles) won't do too much damage. I just have got to prove it to myself and my teammates that they can still count on me.

"I want them to count on me when the game is on the line."

When the depth chart was released during head coach Bret Bielema's press conference on Monday, Brown was listed as the starter ahead of Clay. But in Clay's mind, that distinction doesn't mean he won't be a major factor in the game this week as well as in the weeks to come.

The coaching staff will still put Clay in the game just because he is a talented runner. But, they would just like to see a more focused approach toward the game and a better carryover on the field.

"He's still one of our better players," Settle said. "And we try to put the best 11 on the field. Whether he starts or not is something that we'll discuss as the week progresses. We felt like he's one of our best players. We want to have the best players on the field at all times. Whether he starts or not, he's going to play.

"He has to be productive for us. He has to be big."

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