Ron Dayne, Wisconsin's taciturn senior tailback, prefers to keep most of his thoughts to himself as he chases the NCAA Division I-A career rushing record set last season by Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams of Texas. There's nothing sour or surly in Dayne's responses to questions from reporters. He's just an athlete who lets his deeds, not his words, mostly speak for themselves.

Those deeds, accomplished over four years as the workhorse and now-254-pound running back for the 10th-ranked Badgers, are considerable. With two regular season games remaining--today on the road against No. 17 Purdue and its Heisman hopeful, quarterback Drew Brees, and next week here against Iowa--Dayne needs 321 yards to break Williams's mark, and perhaps provide the impetus for him to win the Heisman.

Dayne said last week that if he had a Heisman ballot this season, he would vote for Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick. But Warrick's chances for the honor were diminished when Florida State officials suspended him for two games last month after he left a department store with about $400 worth of clothes for which an accommodating clerk charged him about $20.

"To me, Warrick took [the suspension] really good," Dayne said. "He could have been way down, but when he came back, each game he got over 100 yards and helped the team win. I liked that."

As for his own chances of winning the Heisman, Dayne said: "I'm not a voter, I just go out and play. If you perform week after week, people should be able to see it. . . . All the attention doesn't bother me. As long as my fans are there, and my teammates are there, I'm happy. It doesn't matter when or where I break the record, or if I break the record. As long as we're winning, I'm fine."

Staying on His Turf

They call him the Great Dayne in this part of the country, and a poster of him posing with four of the actual big dogs has been used by the local Humane Society to promote the cause of pet population control and adoption.

He lives in an off-campus apartment with his longtime girlfriend, Alia Lester, and their 2-year-old daughter Jada, the true light of his life. That is one reason Dayne returned to school this fall rather than turning pro. Lester is finishing her journalism degree at Wisconsin, and Dayne said he did not want be separated from his family.

"I couldn't have been away from my daughter that long," he said during a recent interview. "That's my girl. I'm always with my girl. . . . I don't need money now. Whenever she needs something, my family sends me money, and her mom takes care of Jada, too."

Wisconsin Coach Barry Alvarez insisted he put no pressure on Dayne to return, but instead tried to help him make an informed decision.

"We have a great relationship," Alvarez said. "I told him when the season was over, 'Let's think about what you want to accomplish and where do people think you're going in the draft. Let's get the facts and make a smart choice.'

"A lot of people were saying late first round, and some didn't really know. Others recommended that he stay another year for maturity purposes. He was in striking distance of the record, and he would also graduate. When we laid out all the facts, it was an easy decision for him."

Said Dayne: "It was the right decision. I have no regrets at all."

The money will come soon anyway. Interviews with several NFL personnel men and general managers over the past week indicated that Dayne likely will go somewhere in the middle of the first round, though he is not considered a top-five pick for several reasons.

At one point early in his career, Dayne played at about 275 pounds, and there are some concerns he might again put that additional weight on his now-rock-solid 5-foot-10 frame. It's a problem many big running backs--Craig "Ironhead" Heyward and Jerome Bettis, among others--have had.

"We've been told that he's pretty serious about working out," one GM said, "but with a guy that size, it's always a concern."

Over the course of his career, Dayne also has had various body parts banged up, bruised, dislocated and pulled, as one might expect from a running back who has averaged 27 carries per game this season, after averaging 29.8 as a freshman, 23.9 as a sophomore and 26.8 last season, when he led the Badgers to a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA.

However, Dayne also is someone who will play hurt, contrary to one of several misconceptions about him that finally compelled Wisconsin sports information director Steve Malchow to put a page about Dayne in his weekly football news release titled "What's Myth and What's Fact?"

In fact, Dayne suffered a torn shoulder muscle in 1998 against Penn State, but came back in the second half to gain 62 yards. He suffered a severe ankle sprain during Wisconsin's upset loss at Cincinnati on Sept. 18, but gained a season-high 231 yards, the eighth-best performance in school history. On Oct. 16, he gained 167 yards on 17 carries against Indiana in the first half despite a dislocated finger that made it difficult for him to grip the ball (he sat out the second half of the game, which Wisconsin won, 59-0).

Other critics argue that many of Dayne's yards have come against less-than-quality opposition. But since 1996, in Wisconsin's 14 games against nationally ranked teams, Dayne has averaged 107.3 yards. When Wisconsin played then-No. 11 Michigan State two weeks ago, the Spartans entered the game leading the nation in rushing defense at 39.9 yards allowed per game; Dayne shredded the Spartans for 214 yards, including 72 on the opening drive. In addition, Alvarez has kept him out of seven quarters so far this season to avoid the appearance of Dayne piling up yards in lopsided victories.

His Heisman Trophy chances did seem to hit a low in Wisconsin's nationally televised 21-16 loss to then-No. 4 Michigan on Sept. 25 in which Dayne rushed for 88 yards in the first half, and none in eight carries in the second. But the following week, at then-No. 12 Ohio State, he rushed for 161 yards and a season-high four touchdowns in a 42-17 victory.

For the season, he has 1,396 yards on 244 carries and 17 touchdowns. That means he has joined North Carolina's Amos Lawrence, Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett and New Mexico's Denvis Manns as the only Division I-A players to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of four seasons and is well on his way to becoming the first player to win three Big Ten Conference rushing titles. For his career, he has 5,959 yards on 1,056 carries and 61 touchdowns, and has lost just nine fumbles.

And Dayne hardly is just a short-yardage back. He's been clocked in a remarkable 4.5 seconds for the 40-yard dash, and 15 percent of his career carries have gone 10 yards or longer. His career long run was 80 yards as a sophomore, and in the past month, he's reeled off runs of 69, 57 and 51 yards, helping Wisconsin improve to 7-2 (5-1 Big Ten) and put itself in position for another Rose Bowl appearance.

"Everyone wants to talk about his size," Alvarez said. "But he has outstanding speed and he can make a quick cut. And once he gets in the secondary, he's the most dangerous. He has the power to run through tackles, and the speed to run away from them. You're talking about a special athlete here."

All Bite, No Bark

Dayne demonstrated that at Overbrook High School in Berlin, N.J., where he also was on the track team. As a senior, he threw the discus 216 feet 10 inches at the Golden West Invitational, the third-longest prep throw in history. In 1996, he won the shot put at the Penn Relays and qualified provisionally for the Olympic trials, which he passed up to focus on football.

Dayne had a troubled early life, mostly because of divorce and drugs in his immediate family. When he was 13, he moved in with his uncle, Rob Reid, a Pentecostal minister who encouraged his participation in sports. Dayne ended up at Wisconsin because Alvarez and his staff had recruited several other players from the school, and also promised he would be used at tailback, not fullback, where most coaches wanted him to play.

Dayne said one of his childhood heroes was Washington Redskins running back John Riggins. "I liked the way he ran and the way he competed," he said. "But I'm not a character like he is. I try not to be, anyway."

"It's great to have him on your side," Wisconsin quarterback Brooks Bollinger said. "He's got such great feet and incredible vision. A lot of times, I'll see nothing there, but he'll squirt through. The most amazing thing to me is on one play, he'll make a guy miss and go 30 yards, then on the next play, he'll run right over the middle linebacker at the point of attack.

"He's all business. You're not going to see Ron jump around and get excited about anything. With the guys, he's calm and relaxed. We'll joke around, and you enjoy being around him. In a game, you keep waiting for him to get riled up. He's kind of a flat-line guy, doesn't say anything in the huddle. People take extra shots at him, but he never does. He just gets up, gets the ball and runs over 'em."

CAPTION: Ron Dayne, with two regular season games remaining for Badgers, needs 321 yards to break mark set last year by Ricky Williams of Texas.

CAPTION: Coach Barry Alvarez: "Everyone wants to talk about his size. But he has outstanding speed . . . ."