When one Wisconsin running back goes down, there's always another ready to take his place.
Good thing, because the Badgers needed every one of 'em to fend off UTEP on Saturday.
With Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball sidelined early by an apparent concussion, James White ran for a pair of touchdowns and Melvin Gordon had 112 yards on the ground, including a 26-yard scoring run late in the fourth quarter that sealed the 37-26 victory.
"Nothing's going to change," Gordon said. "We're still going to move the chains."
Jared Abbrederis added a 47-yard TD reception in his first game back from a concussion. The Badgers (3-1) have won 26 straight at home against non-conference opponents, a streak that dates back to September 2003.
The Miners (1-3) fell to 0-17 in road games against BCS conference teams, but they did not go away easily. Their 26 points were the most allowed by Wisconsin this year, and they scored 13 unanswered points to cut the lead to 23-19 with 7:59 to play. But UTEP fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Wisconsin recovered and Gordon scored on the next play to finish the Miners off.
Nick Lamaison threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns, and Steven Valadez kicked field goals from 45 and 43 yards.
"Every loss we've had was a winnable game," Lamaison said. "A lot of us are pretty frustrated because we've been in every game, but we're not finishing it out."
The Badgers began the year with high hopes for the Big Ten title — and more — but have been mediocre, at best. This was another shaky effort, and losing Ball early didn't help. A roughing-the-passer penalty on UTEP's third drive gave the Miners the ball at the Wisconsin 39, and Lamaison found Michael Edwards in the end zone.
But that seemed to finally wake the Badgers up. Konrad Zagzebski got his body in front of Valadez's extra point attempt, and Devin Smith scooped up the ball and raced the length of the field to make it 6-2. According to Wisconsin, it was the first time the Badgers had returned a blocked extra point for two points since the NCAA adopted the rule in 1988.
Gordon opened the Wisconsin drive with a 20-yard run, and Ball followed with a 22-yard rumble that gave the Badgers the ball at the UTEP 25. Five plays later, Ball scored on a 1-yard run. But he got knocked around on the play, looking wobbly as he got up. The medical staff only needed a few minutes to decide he was done for the day, and Ball spent the second half on the sidelines in street clothes.
"He got dinged up a little bit," coach Bret Bielema said. "I don't know if it was a full concussion or whatever it's at, I'll let the doctors decide that."
It was a rough afternoon all around for Ball, who also had the first fumble in his career on Wisconsin's opening drive.
"I was happy to see Melvin and James respond as positively as they did," Bielema said. "And really, there wasn't anybody looking around. Our team knew those two guys could handle the workload."
Joel Stave, a redshirt freshman making his first start, found Abbrederis for a 60-yard pass that set up White's first touchdown, a 3-yard run. Stave and Abbrederis connected again on a 47-yard TD reception to give Wisconsin a 23-6 lead, and the rout appeared to be on. But the Badgers allowed the Miners to hang around — repeatedly. A roughing-the-kicker call kept a UTEP drive alive late in the second quarter, and Valadez kicked a 45-yard field goal just before halftime to start the run of 13 unanswered points.
The Miners converted twice on fourth-down during a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive. Josh Bell ran for six yards after finding a massive gap on fourth-and-1, and Jordan Leslie may as well have had security around him for as big a cushion as he had on a 7-yard catch on fourth-and-3. Two plays later, Xay Williams scored on an 8-yard run to make it 23-16.
Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward saved a touchdown when he broke up Lamaison's pass on third-and-18, forcing the Miners to settle for a field goal that made it 23-19.
"We were doing the little things right," Lamaison said. "We just executed and didn't try to do anything special, just play within the means of the offense and things started working well."
But the Badgers caught a break when the Miners fumbled on the kickoff, and Gordon quickly took advantage of it.
"We've been in that situation," Gordon said. "We knew what we had to do. Just go out there and play Wisconsin football and something good would come out of it."