With all five starters on the offensive line returning, Wisconsin expected P.J. Hill to find plenty of space coming out of the backfield this season. If the Badgers’ opener is any indication, Hill may even exceed the team’s lofty expectations.
Hill looks to build on his highest rushing total in more than a year as the 11th-ranked Badgers host Marshall on Saturday.
Despite playing through nagging injuries, Hill rushed for more than 1,200 yards in each of his first two seasons, joining Ron Dayne and Anthony Davis as the only players in school history to do so. In the Big Ten over the last two years, only former Michigan star Mike Hart had more rushing yards than Hill.
Hill’s success helped Wisconsin rank second in the conference with 2,610 rushing yards last season. In 2008, the Badgers are on top of the Big Ten thanks to a 210-yard performance from Hill in a 38-17 win over Akron last Saturday.
It was the second career 200-yard game for Hill, who rushed for a career-high 249 yards in a win over Northwestern in 2006.
The 5-foot-11, 236-pound running back had 108 yards and one of his two touchdowns in the first quarter last week.
“You want to show them that it’s going to be a long day,” Hill said. “It’s not going to be easy. Badger football - we play physical football, straight at you. Nothing too fancy. Eventually it’s going to wear you down.”
Backups Zach Brown and John Clay added 87 and 71 rushing yards, respectively, as Wisconsin racked up 404 overall for its highest total since compiling 416 in a win over Minnesota in 2002.
Questions, though, still remain about the Badgers’ passing game. Allan Evridge went 7-for-10 for 75 yards and a touchdown, but was also intercepted deep in Akron territory. That came after the Kansas State transfer was almost picked off in the red zone near the end of the first quarter.
“Those are points you need,” Evridge said. “In big games, you need those, so it’s good to do them now. They’re learning experiences.”
Evridge will likely learn a lot faster with a talented offensive line making room for Hill.
“Every single time I drop back and see a big hole open up, it just puts a big smile on your face watching P.J. run down the field,” he said.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema was likely just as excited about Hill’s performance last week, but he’s not taking anything for granted against Marshall. As Kansas State’s defensive coordinator, Bielema watched the Thundering Herd beat the then-sixth-ranked Wildcats 27-20 in Manhattan in 2003.
“When I was at Kansas State I really believe we were suffering from ‘fat cat’ syndrome,” Bielema said. “We were ranked (No. 6) at the time and they came in and beat us.”
Marshall could have the same upset potential in mind based on its successful season opener, a 35-10 win over Illinois State last Saturday.
Darius Marshall rushed for a career-high 115 yards and a touchdown as the Thundering Herd totaled 229 rushing yards, averaging 7.2 per carry.
“The thing that jumped out to me as I watched film is No. 5 - their running back - is extremely talented,” Bielema said Monday. “He’s going into his second year now and is seasoned and has a good feel for the game. He got better as the game wore on.”
Bielema will try to remain undefeated Camp Randall Stadium. He’s 15-0 there, and the Badgers have outscored opponents 508-204 in those games.
Wisconsin and Marshall are meeting for the first time.