Running Wild, Passing Confined

Running Wild, Passing Confined

After missing two of their last three games, sophomore P.J. Hill became the first Badger since 2005 to rush for 100 yards or more in the bowl game, helping take some of the pressure off the passing game.

After Wisconsin's quarterback got mauled in the first half, the running game needed to carry the Badger offense past the seven-point first half deficit against Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.

During the first half, quarterback Tyler Donovan was repeatedly getting hit while the coaching staff called mostly passing plays. At the same time, the running game produced nearly every time it was called upon.

Running back P.J. Hill had played well in the first two quarters – 10 carries and 49 yards – but he really never became a dominant presence for the Badger offense because he didn't get enough touches.

He played the first half mostly in relief or support of the passing game. Every time that Donovan took a hit, it seemed like Wisconsin decided to respond by calling another pass.

"P.J. helped balance out our offense," said Donovan. "It was a huge asset having him in the backfield again."

Walking out of halftime with 14-21 deficit, Wisconsin should have seen that the pass heavy attack wasn't working well. Yet, the second half began with more passing – including a pass on first and 10. Later, Donovan threw three consecutive pass plays that resulted in a three and out.

On the next offensive drive, Wisconsin was forced to punt after an incomplete pass on a third and two. The best scenario in that case might have been to just pound the ball with Hill behind a massive offensive line and fullback, instead of looking to pass.

"The passing game was struggling at times, but P.J. was able to find some room to move," said Donovan.

The fourth drive of the third quarter was much more productive, and typical, for Wisconsin. First, Hill exploded for a 17-yard gain, and then two plays later he carried the ball six yards for a first down.

However, the drive came to a halt when a Lance Smith halfback sweep was stopped on a third and five, which led to a field goal and Wisconsin still down 17-21 going into the fourth quarter.

But Wisconsin's best play was still yet to come. The game made a huge turn in Wisconsin's favor when Hill broke through for a 50-yard run. After being so complacent to pass, this was an explosive moment for a stagnant offense.

"I was not surprised by what he was able to do," said Bielema. "We've seen P.J. do some special things for two years now."

The play put the Badgers into the redzone and created a strong sense of optimism for the first time in the game since the opening minutes, but unfortunately Hill wasn't able to score on the play.

"He ran out of gas on that long one, that might have to do with some conditioning," said Bielema. "I've been around P.J. long enough that when he runs 50 yards, he needs to come out [for a breather]."

However, the bigger disappointment took place when Wisconsin ran a failed passing play on fourth and two – instead of running the ball with Hill. The drive that began with much promise ended with no points. Tennessee was now controlling the ball with 5:52 left in the game and holding onto a four-point lead.

Wisconsin finally got the ball back with 1:26 to go in the fourth quarter and running really not an option. Eventually the Badgers lost the ball and the game for good when Donovan was intercepted.

The Badgers forced the issue by repeatedly passing and cutting drives short. If more running plays had come, maybe Donovan would have been better and not thrown the interception to tend the game.

Yet looking back on the second half, it becomes clear that Wisconsin needed at least switch up the game plan of consistently passing the ball. They tried that within the running game by giving running backs Smith and Zach Brown more carries, but they both averaged under 3.9 yards per carry.

If Hill is going to be your horse, you need to ride him. Hill played well – posting 16 carries, 134 yards and 8.4 yards per carry – but he just wasn't used frequently enough. It really made no sense to not use him more because on many occasions the Badgers passed on plays that normally would be a good opportunity to run the ball.

"P.J. is a guy that loves to compete," said Bielema. "He was ready to be back out there and you saw him gain momentum as the game wore on."

What made the situation even worse was not only was Donovan getting crushed, but star tight end Travis Beckum finished with just two catches. That should have caused Wisconsin to run the ball even more, but instead they choose to pass more.

The reason the Badgers lost wasn't because Donovan took a lot of hits or Beckum didn't get enough catches, it was because Wisconsin kept calling passing plays and Donovan kept looking for Beckum. The Badgers forced passes, took themselves out of their normal gameplan and no longer played Wisconsin football.

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