Backups Provide a Beat Down After Break Down

Backups to begin the year, sophomore running back Lance Smith and sophomore tight end Garrett Graham has emerged as key, productive players for the Wisconsin offense.

MADISON - As the Wisconsin Badgers try to develop new offensive tactics following their two game losing streak, head coach Bret Bielema promised to give the lesser utilized backups more opportunities to play. Badgers Lance Smith and Garrett Graham had their chance to surprise the Northern Illinois Huskies with a 44-3 win on Saturday.

Whether by default from injuries or a reflection of Wisconsin's offensive system, the Badgers lean too heavily on running back P.J. Hill and tight end Travis Beckum.

When they win and both stars dominate a game, no one has any complaints. But, following a loss where those two players have most of the success, that dependence becomes more critical. Their dominance can make it difficult the team to be productive.

"I wanted to see if [the backups] could do a better job then they were currently doing," said Bielema. "I never went into the game thinking I was going to play the backups, but I was going to find out what our best options were."

As a pound-and-hammer back, Hill likes to punish the defense. He builds a full head of steam and relentlessly attack the belly of the defense until it wears down.

During one impressive four game winning streak – he averaged 30 carries, 146 yards and almost two touchdowns per game – Hill showed he's in the class of upper echelon backs in the country.

Yet, when a brute run defense brings more help to limit Hill's chances, someone else needs to alter Wisconsin's running approach. Specifically, a back with more speed that can provide a change of pace.

The Wisconsin formula of pounding the ball only works if the offensive line can consistently get a push. Otherwise, the rush offense needs to change their style of attack.

That's where quicker running back Lance Smith is an important compliment to Hill's power.

With the Huskies defense less than formidable, Saturday was the perfect opportunity to prove Smith could be lighting to Hill's thunder. Smith ran for 48 yards and one touchdown.

On his nine-yard touchdown burst in the second quarter, he dashed quickly to the left side with a run that Hill would have had trouble providing.

Smith's breakaway speed and 7.9 yard per carry average perfectly compliment Hill's power. After Saturday's performance, it would be suprisingly if Smith doesn't get more chances to perform in Camp Randall this season.

If the running game needed Smith's speed on Saturday, then the passing game could do better with more diversity in the form of tight end Garrett Graham.

Beckum has simply carried the passing attack at times, posting at least 10 catches and 130 receiving yards in consecutive games. His numbers are at the top of all receiving statistics nationally for tight ends.

His numbers are remarkable for two reasons, it shows that Beckum is one of the best receiving tight ends in the country and the passing attack at times can't function without him. That's because the more Beckum dominates, the more the defenses focus in their two star players.

"If it predictable than that's fine with me," said Graham. "As long as we can move the chains and productive that's what matters."

Graham may not mind having Beckum dominate the ball, but the offense is much better with him more involved. Graham has become an innovative force for the stagnant Badger offense.

With his steady hands and unexpected production – including a 11.7- yard per catch average – Graham seems to have a better grasp of the offense than someone who is spending his first starting in the offense.

"Considering last year I didn't have any part in the offense, I'd say I'm playing well," said Graham. "I'm off to a great start. I just wanna contribute more to the offense."

As a result, Graham's emergence can make Beckum even more valuable. Just as Smith's early touchdown gave a spark for Hill, Graham sprung himself open while defenses focused on Beckum.

Graham sprinted down the middle of the field for an 25-yard touchdown to give the Badgers the only lead they would need. More importantly, the play came on a third down when Wisconsin needed to score.

Both Smith and Graham can provide explosion to an offense that has had trouble scoring lately. The only solution seems to be using more creative ways to score. Provided with the opportunity, Smith and Graham have proven they can produce. That's not only important to develop their talents for the future, but to improve this year. As the broke the losing streak, both players showed that the offense has become more diverse.

"A perfect example was on that touchdown pass to Garret, where all of [the defense] had their eyes on Travis and that's when Garrett popped open," said Badger quarterback Tyler Donovan. "Those two players [Smith and Graham] are key players within our offense and we gotta keep finding ways to use them."

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