Now a thick thread in Badger football lore, junior fullback Matt Bernstein's promotion to tailback in Saturday's 16-3 win over Penn State presented a situation that the gridiron may have never seen before. While Bernstein's 270-pound frame was running over the Nittany Lion defense, his promotion allowed little-used backup fullback Greg Root a chance for his first extended look with the Badgers' first team. The Bernstein-Root combination amounted to a 540-pound backfield—something to which the game of football is not very accustomed.
"A 540-pound backfield, I don't know if that's ever happened before," Root said. "That's pretty crazy. I like it though."
Root, a native of Palmdale, Calif., was recruited to play linebacker at Wisconsin in 2001. Tired of the West Coast and looking to "slow down a little bit," Root saw Wisconsin as the best academic institution with the finest football program that offered him a scholarship. The slower lifestyle the Midwest had to offer also appealed to the soft-spoken Root.
A little raw and in need of some refinement, Root was redshirted for the 2001 season. The following year, Root got a little lost in the shuffle of a crowded corps of linebackers and did not see any on-field action. With limited opportunities at linebacker after a season with the defense, Root's toughness and strength allowed for the possibility of a position change.
"[Then-linebackers coach Kevin Cosgrove] called me into his office (in Spring of 2002) and just asked me if it would be alright if he switched me over to the fullback position," Root said. "I just said ‘whatever helps the team is cool with me.' Ever since then I've loved playing fullback—it's fun."
"We needed some depth at fullback and (Root) didn't have much of a role at linebacker," offensive coordinator Brian White said. "We brought him over and he's done a good job filling in. He certainly did a very credible job last week when Bernie had to play tailback and I'm very proud of the way he played. He's a tough guy—he's very physical. I don't have any apprehension about putting Greg into a game."
That physicality was never more apparent against Penn State, where Root and the Badger offensive line did a tremendous job blocking for Bernstein, who ran for 123 yards, 120 in the second half. With an offense in dire need of some personality, the big bodies of the Badger backfield gave the entire team a lift and propelled them to the Badgers' fourth victory of the year.
"It certainly brought a lot of energy into the stadium," White said of the Bernstein-Root combination. "Both Bernie and Greg really did a nice job of filling in and being extremely productive when we needed them to."
Bernstein and Root went to each other for support after White made the switch at the start of the second half. Both were fired up, a little nervous and just plain happy about the opportunity the situation presented.
"He was so excited for me," Bernstein said. "I was excited too because I love Greg — my good friend. For him to play, it's just awesome. I love when we get up by a lot of points and I see him go in and he loves it to. [Saturday] was his debut and I think he played great."
"It was awesome – especially with Bernie playing tailback," Root said of his first extensive work. "To see him do so well and that I was in there and that I had a little to do with it, that was awesome. I still have shivers, man – hairs crawling up my arm…I called my mom after the game and she was crying. My uncle from Chicago came up for the game. I'm just glad he was here on the right day. He was really excited for me."
It was a long time coming for Root who had almost seemingly been left in the shuffle of talent on the Badger roster. With the promise Bernstein has shown at tailback and with an injury-plagued corps of running backs, the Big Ten certainly will be seeing more of the Badgers' massive 540-pound backfield that was so effective against Penn State.
Root answers the call
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