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MUTKA: Wisconsin’s James White should badger Leaders Division

Wisconsv Northern Illinois

Wisconsin v Northern Illinois

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Updated: September 3, 2013 7:53AM



Over the years, great running backs have poured out of Camp Randall with startling regularity. Think of Wisconsin’s Badgers and names like Heisman Trophy winners Alan (The Horse) Ameche and Ron Dayne spring to mind.

Since Dayne won the coveted award in 1999, spectacular popups like Anthony Davis (2003-04), who rushed for nearly 4,700 yards even though he missed parts or all of 12 games because of injuries; P.J. Hill (2006-08, 3,992 yards), 2009 Doak Walker finalist John Clay and 2011 Heisman finalist Montee Ball, the NCAA career scoring leader with 77 TDs, have followed.

Overshadowed James White plans to add his name to that distinguished list. Possibly the best running back you never heard of, the compact 197-pound senior ranks second nationally in rushing yardage among returning runners. His only two starts have been as a slot receiver, but White has rushed for 2,571 yards.

Why trek to Wisconsin from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.? That seemed like a logical question, but White answered without hesitation.

“The reason I came was to be a part of that great tradition,” he said.

Relentlessly grinding out victories, the Badgers have won at least nine games in 10 of the last 17 seasons. Unlike Leaders Division rivals Ohio State and Michigan they’ve done it without a hint of scandal.

Wisconsin’s attacking style strikes some fans as ultra-conservative, although quarterback Russell Wilson sprinkled a dose of unpredictability after transferring two years ago.

Last year, Coach Bret Bielema startled the folks in Madison by abruptly fleeing to Arkansas before the Badgers capped an eight-win season with their third straight Rose Bowl appearance. The loss to Stanford came under the guidance of athletic director Barry Alvarez.

Alvarez quickly hired Gary Andersen from Utah State in hopes of extending Wisconsin’s bowl streak to 12 straight years. He brought impeccable credentials, having earned WAC coach of the year honors with a school-record 11 victories.

Andersen brings an elite defensive reputation to the dairy land of swiss cheese and breweries. The Aggies ranked seventh nationally in points surrendered with a 15.4 average.

In 2008, while serving as defensive coordinator at Utah, Andersen helped the undefeated Utes stun previously unbeaten Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Though he stocked his staff with seven newcomers it’s been a smooth transition, according to White. He expects a more unpredictable offense, some of it because either Joel Stave or Curt Phillips could be taking most of the snaps. It brings back memories of last year when three different quarterbacks started at least once.

It doesn’t matter to White, who said he expects Andersen to mix it up.

“I think we’ll pass the ball more,” he said. “I think we’ll be more explosive.”

Here’s a rundown of the Leaders Division with last year’s records in parentheses:

Wisconsin (8-6, 4-4)

The Badgers return 14 starters from their third straight Rose Bowl team plus their kickers. The defense rallies around third-team All-America linebacker Chris Borland.

Human interest will build early with Purdue’s visit on Sept. 21.

“I can’t wait,” said Purdue tight end Gabriel Holmes, who was White’s high school teammate at St. Thomas Aquinas. Good friends, they visited at the Big Ten media days in Chicago.

Predicted record — 9-3.

Ohio State (12-0, 8-0)

The Buckeyes return eight players who were named either first- or second-team All-Big Ten last year. Quarterback Braxton Miller, who threw 15 touchdown passes and ran for 13, is an odds-on favorite for Big Ten player of the year. Look for Coach Urban Meyer to run the table again.

Predicted record — 12-0.

Penn State (8-4, 6-2)

Much to the surprise of critics outside of Happy Valley the Nittany Lions rallied after an 0-2 start under new coach Bill O’Brien. To distance themselves from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, they turned to thousand-yard receiver Allen Robinson (77 catches, 13 TDs), tight end Kyle Carter (36 catches, 453 yards) and guard John Urschel, who’s working on a master’s degree during his final year.

Letttermen include Valparaiso’s Sam Ficken, who carries a streak of 10 straight field goals into the season, including a game-winning 37-yarder against Wisconsin in overtime. He led PSU in scoring with 81 points.

Predicted record — 6-6.

Purdue (6-7, 3-5)

The biggest challenge for Darrell Hazell, one of two new coaches in the Big Ten, is picking a quarterback from three undistinguished candidates. The Boilers return only five offensive starters, but Merrillville receiver Dolapo Macarthy is expected to boost his numbers (28 catches, 252 yards).

Michigan City defensive tackle Ryan Isaac is working on his fourth letter and was a seven-game starter. Freshman running back David Yancey hopes to bounce back from an injury in his senior season at Lake Central.

Predicted record — 5-7.

Indiana (4-8, 2-6)

Offensive-minded IU could be the most improved team in the Big Ten with three experienced quarterbacks protected by a solid line. Go-to-guy in RB/receiver Stephen Houston and five potential 1,000-yard career receivers complete a potent arsenal.

As usual, a porous defense stands in the way. The Hoosiers, who bled for 163 points in their last three losses, have yet to figure out how to stop running backs like Wisconsin’s Montee Ball.

Predicted record — 6-6.

Illinois (2-10, 0-8)

Nine returning starters should perk up the Illini offense, but they keep only four from a defense which caved in against Arizona State (45-14), Louisiana Tech (52-24), Michigan (45-0), Ohio State (52-22) and Northwestern (50-14).

Illinois is saddled with a nine-game losing streak.

Predicted record — 3-9



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