MADISON – P.J. Hill knows what the pundits have said about him and his lack of success in big games.
Hill also remembers his last trip to Ann Arbor, a game that turned out to be the team’s only loss in a 12-1 year that ended with a win in the Capital One Bowl.
“Of course, I remember that game,” Hill said of the 27-13 loss in 2006. “We lost that game, (but) I don’t try to think about that now. It’s all about what we have to do right now. It was two years ago and a different team. We are a very experienced team that we are taking to Ann Arbor this year.”
Hill looks to lead a veteran Badger team into a historically challenging venue for the Badgers when No.8 Wisconsin travels to struggling Michigan on Saturday at 2:30 Central.
When Hill hasn’t been criticized for missing games due to injury, it’s been the fact that Hill’s numbers have slipped against the conference’s elite. Hill started his UW career with three straight 100-yard rushing games during his redshirt freshman until the Badgers traveled to Michigan. It was there that Hill could only muster 54 yards on 20 carries, his third-lowest total of that season.
Last season, Hill sat out the previous game with a leg bruise and tried to return against the Wolverines, but could only manage 14 yards on five carries. In two career games against Michigan, Hill rushed 25 times for 68 yards, an average of 2.7 yards per carry, and no touchdowns.
While the Wolverines are in a rebuilding mode offensively under first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, Michigan still is tough against the run. Using different blitz packages, the Wolverines rank second in the Big Ten and No. 12 nationally in run defense, allowing 65.3 yards per game and 1.8 yards per carry.
“I’ve heard the staff bring up (that) P.J. Hill’s rushing numbers versus certain opponents in his two-year career (are different),” head coach Bret Bielema said. “I know that’s a proof of point. I think that’s probably why, in Fresno State, you might have saw P.J. Hill, even though it wasn’t his most productive numbers, may have played his best game as a college football player here at Wisconsin. That’s why last week, he was a guy that was a little bit sore, and he’s been giving his all.”
The differences between the P.J. Hill that went to Michigan two years ago and the one that will be traveling their Saturday are night and day. Being simply a runner his first season, Hill has continued to be a power runner but is smarter about taking hits and has found his comfort level in an offense that’s success is determine by him and his fellow backs.
“You start getting smarter when you have some years under your belt,” said Hill.
You are able to see things that you have seen before so you start to feel more comfortable. I have progressed like that, just being in certain situations with my experience. That’s the thing about this team. We have a lot of experience that allows us to slow down the game a lot.”
But while Wisconsin has the experience, Michigan (1-2) has all the question marks; a stark contrast to the last couple meetings of these two teams. Not only is Michigan the only conference team with two losses, but the offense has yet to find a reliable signal caller. Freshman quarterback Steven Threet has averaged 102 yards a game and only 54.5 percent of his passes while backup Nick Sheridan has averaged one interception every 9.7 attempts.
In the Wolverines’ six turnover performance in South Bend two weeks ago, the lone bright spot was freshman running back Sam McGuffie who rushed 25 times for 131 yards. Just like the Badgers, the Wolverines have had a week off and the Badgers know that Michigan is going to fight in order to start its second season on a positive note.
“They are a wounded beast,” said Hill of Michigan. “They are a very good team that has a lot of players that played a lot of football. We can’t go in there and think we are going to just beat them. We know they are going to give us a battle and we’re going to meet that challenge.”
While the roles have been seemingly reversed between this meeting and the 2006 tilt, the fact remains that the Badgers are 6-26 lifetime at Michigan Stadium and have not beaten the Wolverines in Ann Arbor since 1994. But in addition to their big-game experience, this Wisconsin squad has the experience of traveling to a hostile environment and walking away with a win over a ranked Fresno State opponent.
This week, the Badgers hope to break a 14-year losing streak and be undefeated when conference heavyweight Ohio State comes to Madison October 4.
“We played a ranked opponent, a team known for knocking down big teams and they challenged us in a very challenging game,” Hill said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be a cake walk and it showed a lot about our team going out there and competing.
“This is our conference now,” he added. “We’re about to get into it and play better teams. Teams that are better than past teams we’ve played but we can’t take a step back. We still need to keep moving forward and keep working hard.”
No.8/9 Wisconsin (3-0) vs. Michigan (1-2)
Date/Time - Saturday, September 27 at 2:37 p.m. CT
Arena – Michigan Stadium (106,201)
Television - ABC (Brad Nessler, Bob Griese, Paul Maguire, Stacey Dales)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas)
Series – Michigan leads 48-12-1 and 26-6 in Ann Arbor
Last Meeting – Without Michigan starters Chad Henne and Mike Hart on offense, UW sealed the victory in the fourth quarter with a Jack Ikegwuonu interception and a pair of Zach Brown touchdowns to win 37-21. The 15-point margin of victory was the largest for Wisconsin since a 34-12 win in 1962.
After winning just two games against Michigan between 1982 and 2002, UW has won two of the last three meetings between the teams
This will be the first time UW has faced an unranked Michigan team since 1967 and the first time UW is ranked and the Wolverines are not since 1959
Through the first three games, the Badgers have allowed an average of 13.7 points, 17th-best in the country. Through three games last year, UW was giving up 21.7 points
Junior running back P.J. Hill ranks seventh in UW history in career rushing with 3,160 yards. That is eighth-best nationally among active players. He is averaging 117.0 yards per game for his career, the best among active players with at least 15 career games played. His 22.7 carries per game in his career also leads the country
According to the Sept. 21 NCAA statistics, Wisconsin’s cumulative schedule is the sixth-toughest in the country. Sorted on past opposition (Akron, Marshall and Fresno State), UW’s schedule is also tied for sixth-toughest
UW is the first team in Big Ten history to open conference play by facing Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State in consecutive weeks
Both teams are coming off a bye week but while the Badgers went into the off week overflowing with confidence and momentum, Michigan has used the last two weeks to figure out its problems. From the looks of the Wolverines first three games, there are plenty of places to start, as Michigan has played three-straight ugly looking games with little offense rhythm. Defensively, U-M looks just as impressive as in year’s past, as the run defense numbers are evidence of that.
Wisconsin on the other hand is still brewing with excitement and confidence after beating No.21 Fresno State in the desert. UW has used the off week to find tune its offense, which offensive coordinator Paul Chryst is far from perfect and needs to be better for conference play.
Bottom line, there’s no reason Wisconsin shouldn’t win this game and deserve to be more than be a six-point favorite. The Badgers are the team with more experience, more talent and are playing like a cohesive unit. When the band plays ‘Hail to the Victors’ this time around, it will be in reference to Wisconsin, who should be returning to Madison undefeated.
Wisconsin 34, Michigan 17
Straight up: 3-0
Against the Spread: 3-0