Matt Bernstein may prefer fullback but he is playing well enough at tailback to continue complimenting Anthony Davis at the position.
Bernstein entered Saturday's game against Illinois as not only Wisconsin's No. 1 fullback but as the team's second-team tailback. He debuted as a tailback out of necessity against Penn State Sept. 25 but after filling in nicely for the second consecutive week, there is likely a long-term role for Bernstein at the position.
"Matt's going to continue to rotate in at tailback," offensive coordinator Brian White said. "There is no denying that."
Bernstein's numbers (13 carries, 37 yards) were not nearly as impressive against Illinois as they were last week versus Penn State (27-123) but he served as a worthy change of pace to star tailback Davis, who returned from an eye injury that had held him out of action for the past three-and-a-half games.
"I'm enjoying it but with AD back I'd just rather block and let him run for 213 yards," Bernstein said. "It's tough doing that [playing tailback]. He sparks our offense and I'm just happy to block."
Wisconsin gave the ball to Bernstein the fullback on its first play from scrimmage before turning him loose in his preferred role as a lead blocker. Often, as Davis was bursting into the open field, he was cutting off a devastating block from Bernstein.
But as good as Davis was (27 carries for 213 yards) and as much as the Badgers' offense relied upon him, they did not simply pound him into the Illinois defense. Davis touched the ball three consecutive times on three occasions. The first culminated in a touchdown while the latter two instances were followed by consecutive plays away from Davis, including consecutive Bernstein runs. Davis then returned for two of his biggest runs: a 26-yard third-quarter dash and his 31-yard fourth-quarter touchdown, which came two plays after four consecutive Bernstein runs.
"We didn't have a set number [of carries for Davis]," Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said. "We wanted to keep him fresh more than anything else. We included him, and Matt also, letting us know when he was winded. Then a couple times just taking him out and letting Bernie get some playing time at tailback. It presented a problem occasionally just with substitution because Bernie's in there [at fullback]… but the guys handled it OK."
Bernstein ran 12 times for 35 yards as a tailback. In the middle of the second quarter he bulled forward for five yards on first down, then four on second down. Davis returned on third-and-one, took advantage of a decleating block from guard Jonathan Clinkscale and dashed down field for 27 yards. The play set up Mike Allen's 48-yard field goal.
"Bernie's a load to tackle," Davis said. "I see it. When those guys hit him, they get tired of hitting that guy. You can get tired of hitting Bernie. Bernie's 250, 260 pounds. Those D-backs are getting tired of hitting him. I come along and it makes them a step slower sometimes."
"I thought they complimented each other pretty well," White said. "We'll keep going with it, we'll keep moving along with it and the one thing that we've been able to do is plug in healthy bodies and find a way to win a game, whether it be Booker against Arizona or Matt last week."
Tailbacks Booker Stanley (turf toe) and Jamil Walker (shoulder) were not available Saturday, but even when they return there could still be a place for Bernstein at tailback.
"I wouldn't disagree with that. That's a physical guy," White said. "As we've found out we are going to need all these guys throughout the year so I don't want to take anyone's spirit away from them. Booker Stanley is a proven, good, quality, consistent back."
Bernstein, though, had a different read on the situation, believing he probably would not play tailback once Stanley and Walker return.
"I'm not really disappointed about that," he said. "They were recruited to play tailback. I was recruited to block for them and I think that is the way it will be this year."
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