There’s one bothersome statistic from Wisconsin’s sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-ghastly 38-17 victory over Akron on Saturday. It has to do with Badger tailback P.J. Hill.
Obviously, it’s not his production. Hill’s just-another-day-at-the-office 210-yard, two-touchdown effort moved him into seventh all-time on the UW rushing list and pushed him over the 3,000-yard mark for his career, of which he’s only halfway through.
It’s his 26 carries that bring cause for concern.
Like it or not, 26 times taking the rock is far too many times for Hill to be put at risk for injury against a Zips team that simply did not belong on the field with Wisconsin.
True, the Badgers needed Hill on the field longer than expected. After a perfect first quarter, UW allowed Akron back in the game with a lackluster second quarter that kept the Zips within a mere touchdown at halftime.
Nobody’s blaming Wisconsin for needing Hill to work overtime, since the win is what counts most. But speaking with UW running backs coach John Settle on Tuesday, it sounds like 26 carries wasn’t a concern at all, even against an inferior opponent.
“The target is about 25 to 30 carries, and he was right on,” Settle said. “Right now, depending on the flow of a game, we’ll give it to him even more.”
Well, let’s say Hill averages the low end of that spectrum, at 25 carries a game. That would mean he has 300 rushes at the end of the regular season and 325 to include a bowl game.
To put things in perspective, Hill’s predecessor, Brian Calhoun, had an astounding 348 carries in 2005. That was the highest total in the country, 38 more than Memphis’ DeAngelo Williams.
Further, only six UW backs have produced 300-carry seasons, including Hill himself in 2006. In the past four NCAA seasons, only 15 Division I-A rushers have reached that mark.
In other words, 300 carries is a ton. The fact is, in Wisconsin’s case, it’s just not necessary because unlike other schools, UW has the luxury of not one, but two extremely capable backups to spell Hill some carries.
Sophomore Zach Brown, with his quick speed and quicker first step, and redshirt freshman John Clay, a budding mini-me to Hill’s Dr. Evil — that is, if Dr. Evil ever bowled over smaller defenders on the way to a bevy of 100-yard games — are the two whippersnappers who will be doing much more than just cleaning up for Hill in garbage time.
These two are absolutely essential to keeping Hill healthy through the 13-game grind. Even Hill, who has always considered himself a workhorse, knows that.
“It keeps me fresh. Those guys can handle the job as well as I can,” Hill said Sunday. “You’ve seen John Clay for his first time, for his first college game, he had a very good game. Him and Zach can carry the load as well as I can.”
Hill then delivered a perfect response to the issue of spreading out playing time, befitting of both team goals and good personal health.
“The coaches always ask me how many carries I want, but I’m going to get my carries, and I’d also like to see those guys go in there and perform as well, no matter what the situation,” Hill said.
The formula should be pretty simple for Wisconsin this year, particularly against the likes of Marshall this weekend: build a good lead, establish the run with Hill, then get him out of there and let Brown and Clay finish up.
If UW head coach Bret Bielema needs further proof of the importance of a lead back’s health, he could just call Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and see how the Buckeyes are dealing with the injured foot of Heisman hopeful Chris “Beanie” Wells.
We’ll see just how cautious the Badgers are with Hill against the Thundering Herd Saturday. But at this point, it appears the coaches won’t be afraid to use Hill like a workhorse.
“It depends on how (Brown and Clay) are doing,” UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. “If the other ones are struggling, he’d be in the 30s.”
If that’s the case, then Brown and Clay had better grow up fast. Because as Hill goes, so go the Badgers.
What does that say about Wisconsin’s chances at a Big Ten title this season, if Hill were to join Wells on the sideline?
Aaron Brenner is a former Herald sports columnist. Contact him at [email protected]