Back in Shape
This is an article from the Oct. 1, 2007 issue
Wisconsin's titlehopes rest on the shoulders of a leaner P.J. Hill, who led the Badgers to a BigTen win over Iowa
IT TOOK NEARLY 45minutes and a brief injury setback before it came together, but late in thethird quarter against Iowa last Saturday night, Wisconsin tailback P.J. Hillpounded out the type of gritty, do-it-all drive Heisman campaigns are built on.It was a series that will inevitably spark further comparisons of Hill withformer Badgers bruiser Ron Dayne. Hill hopes it was the type of career-definingperformance that will end such tidy comparisons too.
Trailing 10--7 andsitting on its own 32-yard line as the third quarter expired, Wisconsinappeared at a loss against an Iowa defense that had come into the game rankedfifth in the nation and had been allowing just 2.1 yards per carry. The Badgersoffense had sputtered, fumbling away a promising early opportunity andstringing together four three-and-outs. Meanwhile Hill, the 2006 Big Tenfreshman of the year, had been held in check and had missed a portion of thequarter with a neck stinger. Wisconsin's Division I-A-best 12-game winningstreak was in danger.
As most greatbacks do in these situations, Hill called for the ball. "I just took onelook at [the coaches]," he said later. "They knew what to do." Whatthey did was hand the ball to Hill on 10 of the Badgers' next 12 plays, whichincluded pinballing rushes of seven, seven, eight and 12 yards, plus apunctuating two-yard TD plunge. It was the first rushing touchdown against theHawkeyes this season and proved decisive in what would be a 17--13 Wisconsinwin.
The physicality ofHill's 10-play assault understandably evoked memories of Dayne, who bulldozedhis way to the Heisman in 1999. Hill, however, likes to point out that it's hisnew, very un-Dayne-like physique that enabled him to bring the pain late in thegame. Hill, who stands only 5'11", lost almost 20 pounds (down from 242 to225) during the off-season, and now he hopes to wear down defenses, rather thanvice versa. Joked Hill, "I finally got to utilize my remodeledbody."
Wisconsin coachBret Bielema is fortunate to have such a hard-nosed back because beforeSaturday he appeared to have a suspect defense: In the 11-team Big Ten, theBadgers were ranked ninth in points allowed. Against The Citadel on Sept. 15,Hill scored three first-half touchdowns, and each was matched on the subsequentdrive by a Bulldogs TD. Before that it took second-half offensive surges tofight off Washington State and UNLV. On Saturday the Badgers defense finallyshowed up, sacking Iowa's Jake Christensen four times and hurrying him into 20incompletions on 37 attempts. But consider the opponent: Iowa is last in theBig Ten in every major offensive category.
"Our defensestruggled the first few games, and the offense stepped up; today theystruggled, and we stepped up," said linebacker Jonathan Casillas."That's what teams do." Come Saturday, the Badgers would be better offif both stepped up: Undefeated Michigan State visits Camp Randall Stadium.
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Three and Out
1 USC's most viable Pac-10 challenger will bedetermined this Saturday when No. 6 Cal visits No. 11 Oregon. The Bears' passdefense (88th nationally) could be in for a long day against Ducks QB DennisDixon, the nation's fourth-rated passer.
2 A blowout loss at Miami, on the heels of a near upsetat home by Fresno State, shows that Texas A&M isn't close to where itshould be after five years under coach Dennis Franchione. It may take anotherupset of Texas to save his job.
3 Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman—a 66% passer,with 10 TDs and only three interceptions—has been a pleasant surprise. It's notunreasonable to think the Buckeyes, who field the nation's No. 2 defense, couldenter the regular-season finale against Michigan undefeated again.