As stated before, at times we will write about Wisconsin Badgers football on this Packers-centric site. The crossover of fans is incredibly strong and the passion for both teams is palpable, so why the hell not? If you’re not a Badgers fan just skip this piece!
The Wisconsin Badgers and collegiate running back success, two things that go together like few other things in sports.
But which running backs are the best in program history? Well, that is the mountain of talent we voluntarily climbed to assemble this multigenerational piece.
We eventually sorted through all of the legendary names and realized exactly how impressive the Badgers’ litany of running backs really has been. Of course, we already showed why Wisconsin is “Running Back U” a few weeks ago. But now we’re looking specifically at the men who built that culture and their specific place within that history.
A huge thanks goes to the offensive line play at Wisconsin year after year and the unbelievable foresight and direction of head coach turned athletic director, Barry Alvarez, for this sustained running back success. Most of these runners, and all of them since 1990, have had All-American linemen in front of them blocking at some point in their career — often times numerous awarded linemen.
But still, if running the ball is a program’s desired culture, it ultimately takes a collection of talented backs setting, keeping, and raising that culture. That is what the Badgers have had, and somehow, continue to have.
Alvarez let it be known the recipe for success at Wisconsin would be huge in-state linemen blocking for running backs that could “do a job.”
And what a job they’ve done.
Running back success at Wisconsin is a way of life for the players and a source of pride for the fans. Thus, we understand there will be strong opinions when it comes to the placement of different runners from different eras on this all-time countdown. We did our best to respect all eras of Badgers football.
How we came to our conclusions:
Players are ranked in order of greatness, to put it simply. However, a lot goes into making a player “great.” Statistics play a huge part, obviously, but so does the running back’s overall impact on the Wisconsin Badgers football program. We considered both their ability to elevate their team to new heights and subsequent victories. That said, individual awards (national and conference) play a big role, too. Overall skill, talent, and ability were all heavily taken into account as well. All of these factors were combined and used to judge each individual runner.
We did not take into account NFL success when putting this list together, this is strictly about what the player did while at Wisconsin.
We are hoping 2019 redshirt freshman Nakia Watson, who played just a few snaps this season, jumps up this list quickly as the next two seasons unfold after Taylor has moved onto the NFL.
Note: For each runner, as applicable, we listed their highest finish in the Doak Walker Award rankings for best running back in the country, as well as any other major awards that they won. We did not list a player’s finish in other awards that they may have been finalists for but ultimately did not win.
Hope you enjoy this list!
20. Dare Ogunbowale (2013-16)
Ogunbowale was a converted running back, after two seasons as a defensive back while in Madison. This was after beginning his career as a walk-on. He was a runner that never really got to be the main focus of the Badgers’ offense, but put up respectable results in his limited opportunities. His best season was 2015 when he put up 1,118 total yards and eight touchdowns. Ogunbowale did catch 60 passes in just two years, too, showcasing his athletic ability. He doesn’t get enough credit for changing positions halfway through his collegiate career and still being able to produce at the level he did.
19. Alan Thompson (1969-71)
A rare player that peaked in his first season, Thompson certainly isn’t a household name in Madison, but he earned his spot on this list. In just three years at Wisconsin, he amassed 2,231 yards and 22 touchdowns. Unfortunately, Thompson never got to play in a bowl game because he was in Madison during some very lean years. His statistics were impacted by playing behind a more explosive runner in Rufus Ferguson, but in some ways that’s a credit to Thompson. To be able to post respectable stats despite not being “the guy” takes a special back. This trend of multiple productive backs in the backfield at the same time only got stronger at Wisconsin.
18. Larry Emery (1983-86)
One of the best players of the 1980s for the Badgers (okay, we know that’s not saying much) was Larry Emery. His career 5.1 yards per rush were fantastic for the era and lack-luster offensive line play he had paving his way. Emery’s career peaked as a junior when he put up 1,113 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. His 3,281 yards from scrimmage speak for themselves. He had one bowl appearance, but didn’t quite leave his mark. You can only imagine how many yards he’d rush for behind a typical Badgers offensive line from the last 25 years.
17. Michael Bennett (1999-00)
Bennett was a bit of a one-year standout at Wisconsin, but his 2000 season was good enough for inclusion on this all-time countdown. Ron Dayne was gone from Wisconsin, in the NFL, and Bennett did his best to keep the momentum going at the position. He responded quite well to Dayne’s departure in a breakout season. He finished second in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,681 yards and he put up 11 touchdowns on top of that. He’d go on to score the game-winning touchdown against UCLA in the Sun Bowl.
After his junior season he headed for the NFL and was a first round draft pick; the scouts were that impressed with his season. But still, with just 15 career touchdowns and only one impressive season, he couldn’t quite crack the top 15 Badgers backs of all-time. He did go on to be named to a Pro Bowl while with the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL.
16. Corey Clement (2013-16)
He played behind Melvin Gordon for two seasons before he finally got his chance to be the main guy in the Badgers’ backfield (2016). Clement responded with over 1,500 total yards and 15 touchdowns. Pound for pound, one of the stronger runners to come through Madison. And although it seemed like Clement never quite hit his full potential (injuries share some of the blame), he still scored 38 career touchdowns.
He carried on Wisconsin’s legacy nicely while helping the Badgers win some big games. He scored in the Wisconsin victory over LSU at Lambeau field in 2016 and his game-opening Cotton Bowl touchdown led to the Badgers’ first “New Years Six Bowl” level victory since the days of Ron Dayne. His NFL career is off to an impressive start with the Philadelphia Eagles.
15. Brian Calhoun (2005)
A one year wonder, but the greatest one year wonder in Badgers running back history. He transferred from Colorado after two seasons to “Running Back U.” Had he spent two seasons in Madison, he’d possibly be twice as high on this list. Over 2,200 yards and 24 touchdowns were amassed during his magical junior season in 2005. Speed, speed, speed was Calhoun’s trademark.
In his first game in Madison he scored five touchdowns against Bowling Green and he did it again against Illinois. His game sealing touchdown against Auburn in the 2006 Capital One Bowl sealed his legacy as having an all-time great season in college football history at the running back position. To be ranked ahead of some of these guys, with just one season played, lets you know how incredible he was that year.
Doak Walker Award Semi-Finalist (2005)
14. Terrell Fletcher (1991-1994)
Fletcher was the backfield partner of Brent Moss, as they formed a lethal one-two punch. Moss was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, but Fletcher was nearly as important in getting the Badgers to their first ever Rose Bowl victory in 1993. In 1994, the starter Moss missed numerous games to injury and Fletcher took over.
In his senior season Fletcher rushed for 1,476 yards (second in the Big Ten), put up 1,656 total yards, and 13 total touchdowns. Fletcher would go on to lead the Badgers to a Hall of Fame Bowl victory, being named MVP of the game. He was one of the men that changed this program’s culture, against all odds. He’d go on to put together an eight year NFL career.
13. P.J. Hill (2006-08)
Hill’s legacy is a convoluted one. He wasn’t the fastest runner to ever come to Madison, but he, to his credit, always seemed like an overachiever. His freshman season was one of the best in program history (1,766 total yards and 16 touchdowns). Three straight 1,000 yard rushing seasons is no small feat either. Speaking of that freshman season, he helped lead the Badgers to a Capital One Bowl victory in Bret Bielema’s first season at Wisconsin.
I’d venture to say Hill is one of the most underrated running backs in Wisconsin history, certainly of the last 20 years. No one brings up Hill when talking about the recent dominance at the position. I mean, as a freshman he led the Big Ten in rushing and rushing touchdowns. Few have ever done that.
Doak Walker Award Semi-Finalist (2006)
12. John Clay (2008-10)
Having John Clay, a guy who topped the 1,000 yard mark twice in his career including an amazing 2009 season (1,517 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns) in which he was named Big Ten Player of the Year, while leading the Badgers to a conference championship, placed outside the all-time top 10 shows how great the Badgers have been at the position. He remains one of the few five star recruits in Wisconsin history.
I couldn’t believe he wasn’t in the top 10, but here we are.
Clay, a big power back who ran with long strides and often through contact, starred in the two bowl games he was the starter for. In the Champs Sports Bowl against Miami he ran for 121 yards and two scores (MVP of the game) and in the following year he ran for a touchdown in the Rose Bowl. If they just would have handed him the ball for a two-point conversion attempt in the Badgers’ Rose Bowl loss to TCU they would have at least gone to overtime. It’s still a shame to this day; he was unstoppable in that fourth quarter.
His 41 career touchdowns are an impressive total, too, given his lack of top end speed. Even so, there have been more than 10 running backs in Badgers history to come in above him on the all-time list. His 104 rushing yards and two touchdown performance in Wisconsin’s upset of No. 1 Ohio State is an all-time Camp Randall moment.
Truly nothing could better demonstrate Wisconsin’s depth and history at the position than Clay’s position be outside the top 10 (or top 11, for that matter) on this prestigious list.
Doak Walker Award Finalist (2010); Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year (2009)
11. Rufus Ferguson (1970-72)
The “The Roadrunner” was one half of a formidable running back duo for the Badgers in the early ’70s, along with Alan Thompson. However Ferguson, a shifty runner with incredible speed, was the more dominant back. In 1971, he ran for 1,222 yards and an impressive 13 touchdowns while being named First Team All-Big Ten. He’d follow this campaign up with another 1,000+ yard rushing season in 1972 culminating in 26 career rushing touchdowns. Ferguson had no bowl game appearances, unfortunately, at no fault of his own.
“The Rufus Shuffle” should still be celebrated today as one of Wisconsin’s best celebrations. His highlights are a refreshing glimpse of immense talent in an era of Badgers football when jaws were rarely dropped. Few Badgers backs have ever run with such confidence or grace. It’s a shame he could only play three seasons for the Badgers. By the time he left Madison, Ferguson was one of the Badgers’ all-time leading rushers despite standing just five and a half feet tall.
Circumstances beyond his control, as far as team success (or lack thereof) and a lack of individual awards keep him out of the top 10 all-time. But make no mistake, he was a fantastic running back for the Badgers.
See the best of the best on Page 2!
Alan Ameche had to play linebacker also. Can you imagine what he could have done with a break while the defense was on the field. Dayne, Taylor, Gordon and many others you mentioned only played offense.
If Packers let another Team get Melvin Gordon, I think it will be a time for me to consider backing another pro Team.