For the first time in four weeks, Matt Bernstein will have an opportunity to lead block for Anthony Davis Saturday. He has thrived in that role throughout his career and Wisconsin has reaped the benefits of having one of the best fullbacks in the country clear a path for one of the best tailbacks in the country.
"I love blocking for him. He makes everyone look good," Bernstein said. "The line loves blocking for him. He's just awesome. He just brings something that I don't think every team in college football has."
What Davis has is breakaway speed and a deft ability to find running lanes. Bernstein, a 270-pound fullback generously listed at 6-foot-2 officially, does not exactly have Davis' speed but he filled in spectacularly for Davis and the rest of Wisconsin's tailbacks last week against Penn State, rushing for 120 yards on 26 second-half carries at the position.
"That was hilarious. It was fun watching him play," Davis said. "In practice he was taking reps at tailback.. the last few weeks actually, and I was like.. telling some of the guys, ‘Coach needs to put Bernstein in. I hope he puts Bernstein in.' And he did. That was just funny. It was hilarious watching him jump over people and it just seemed like he was having fun out there."
"It was unbelievable what he did," quarterback John Stocco said.
Davis is back in action after three-and-a-half games out due to a broken orbital bone, but reserve tailback Jamil Walker (shoulder) will not play and top reserve Booker Stanley is doubtful (turf toe).
"We're depending on Anthony... depending on Bernie," offensive coordinator Brian White said.
So, like last week, Bernstein will play fullback and tailback when Wisconsin matches up with Illinois at 1 p.m. Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium. Rather than play one half at each, however, he will likely flex between the two positions, with Greg Root subbing for him at fullback. True freshman Chris Pressley could also see time at tailback.
Bernstein is not going to outrun many people at tailback, but he will run downhill and can punish a defense, as he did against Penn State.
"We all know Bernie's not a 10-flat 100-meter guy," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "But whatever he did, he did it, there was no hesitation. He did it hard. He did it as fast as he could, and he was effective."
"My cell phone mailbox was full," Bernstein said of his Penn State performance. "I think I heard from everybody that I've ever said ‘hello' to…Old coaches called me. Players where I was a freshman when they were seniors, they called. It was real exciting."
In true fullback mentality, though, Bernstein would just assume return to helping his tailback teammates receive the glory. Out of necessity, however, that will not be the case this week.
"We've always cross-trained our backs and I wasn't holding anything back with Matt in there," White said. "There are certain things you want to focus on because you have to be aware of what his best talents are but from a protection standpoint and awareness, he was fine. He didn't have any mental errors. It wasn't like we came in totally one-dimensional and only ran one run. We ran a variety. We ran zones, we ran counter, outside zone, inside zone, power."
Bernstein said playing tailback wore him down more than delivering blows at fullback does.
"It's a lot different to hit somebody else, to know you have a chance to hit somebody than to not know where you are going to get him from," he said. "It is a lot different when you get hit by one person and you still try to move and like five other guys come over and hit you. It hurts your body a little bit more."
Badgers trust in Bernstein
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