Wisconsin's moribund offense needed a spark Saturday. So who else would provide it but Matt Bernstein, right? The 6-foot-2, 270-pound fullback was forced into tailback duties Saturday and gave Wisconsin exactly what it needed with 120 second-half rushing yards on an incredible 26 second-half carries. With Bernstein running the ship, the Badgers were able to control the ball for 21 of 30 minutes in the second half and cover up for a rough performance from quarterback John Stocco in a 16-3 win.
Bernstein, a formidable blocker and short-yardage runner in his UW career, was remarkably fluid at tailback, making crisp reads and nimble cuts. He even hurdled a defender on his way to a 17-yard run.
With star tailback Anthony Davis out with an eye injury, the Badgers had discussed using Bernstein at the position to provide more depth. He received his opportunity out of necessity. Booker Stanley, who started his third straight game Saturday in place of Davis, aggravated a turf toe injury and true freshman reserve Jamil Walker re-injured his shoulder, keeping both out of the game in the second half.
The Badgers very nearly did not have Bernstein, who is Jewish, at their disposal due to the Yom Kippur holiday. He began fasting at 5 p.m. Friday and could not eat or drink until sunset, when he began eating turkey and oranges and on the sidelines.
"We gave him a hoagie and an IV," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said.
"I was sitting at home, and me and my dad were discussing this and my dad was like, ‘I hope this game's not early, you won't be able to play,'" Bernstein said. "I was like, ‘yes, I know.' You know your religion comes first. It would've been disappointing for me not to come but once my dad told me it was a five o'clock game I was so happy because I knew I could play."
"He told us what he could do, what he couldn't do, where he had to be, when he had to go," Alvarez said. "We just worked around it."
Bernstein did not go through pregame warm-ups, which incidentally caused Penn State to believe he was injured.
"They threw us off because I didn't see Bernstein in pre-game warm-ups," Nittany Lion defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "I was excited because I didn't think Bernstein was going to play. They make miraculous recoveries over there."
Stanley had nine yards on 10 carries in the first half and went backwards on four attempts. The Badgers as a team had 92 total yards in the first half, just 13 on the ground.
Enter Bernstein, who ran 11 times for 62 yards in his first series at tailback, providing the primary offense on a 17-play, 73-yard, opening-third-quarter drive that gobbled up nearly eight minutes.
One possession after a Stocco fourth-quarter interception, Bernstein was at it again, with runs of 12 and nine yards helping take another 3:21 off the clock.
"He is a tough guy. We just need to stop him and…we let him run the ball right into us," Penn State linebacker Tim Shaw said.
Bernstein's performance harkened back to his days at Edgemont High School in Scarsdale, N.Y., where he was a star running back. At Edgemont Bernstein ran for 2,002 yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior and 1,885 yards and 25 touchdowns as a junior, winning New York State Class C player of the year each season. A four-year starter, he scored 504 points in his career, the third-highest total in New York prep history.
In his third year as the Badgers' starting fullback, Bernstein entered Saturday's game with 203 career rushing yards. Widely considered one of the best lead blockers in the college game, Bernstein's most prolific rushing performance prior to Saturday came in his first game at UW: five carries, 23 yards, two touchdowns.
Bernstein has often been used as a short-yardage runner from the fullback position. It was in that capacity that he received his lone carry of the first half, a three-yard run. His 26 second-half carries came entirely from a single set back or tailback position.
Bernstein to the rescue
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