Brown, Clay can take heat off Hill

The biggest concern facing the Badgers this weekend is not if they can run the football, but can P.J. Hill's two backups run as effectively as the power-running junior?

MADISON — Take a guess what the most encouraging part of Wisconsin's 38-17 sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-nervy win over Akron was.

No, it's not Philip Welch's perfect 1-for-1 FG, 5-for-5 PAT day or Brad Nortman's 58.0-yard punting average. Although it is nice to know Wisconsin's special teams might not be the primary cause for two or three losses this season, and perhaps Nortman, the true freshman who booted just one punt, should consider retiring with the highest career punt average in football history.

No, it's not anything to do with the defense. The jury's still out on new coordinator Dave Doeren's crew, what with early-season injuries to Jonathan Casillas and Aaron Henry.

And no, it's not P.J. Hill's just-another-day-at-the-office 210 yards and two touchdowns – which, stunningly, was only the second time in his career he's surpassed the bicentennial mark. But the answer is in Hill's zip code.

Give up? It's the production behind Hill, who ascended the 3,000-yard mark for his career and moved into seventh all-time on the UW rushing list.

Those are lofty stats for the burly Badger. But Hill has been injury plagued during his career, and with the passing game looking like a giant question mark, UW's season hinges on Hill's legs staying healthy this season.

Enter Zach Brown and John Clay, the two whippersnappers who will be doing much more than just cleaning up for Hill in garbage time. Brown, a sophomore with quick speed and a quicker first step, and Clay, the touted redshirt freshman who's a budding mini-Me to Hill's Dr. Evil – that is, if Dr. Evil ever bowled over smaller defenders on the way to a bevy of 100-yard games – are absolutely essential to keeping Hill fresh and healthy through the 13-game grind.

Even Hill, who considers himself a workhorse perfectly capable of 300-plus carries in 2008, knows that.

"It keeps me fresh, Those guys can handle the job as well as I can," Hill said Sunday. "You've seen John Clay for his first time, for his first college game, he had a very good game. Him and Zach can carry the load as well as I can."

If you missed the game Saturday – though you probably didn't, because Charter and Big Ten Network finally reached an agreement (cheers!) – Brown ran 15 times for 87 yards, and Clay 12 times for 71 yards. Both backups found the end zone, and each averaged just under six yards a carry.

The fact is, Hill worked hard enough in the weight room this offseason – he's still listed at 236 pounds, but if that's true, it's a much slimmer 236 – that he might be able to go 300, 325 rushes this year.

But Brown and Clay have shown they are perfectly capable of spelling Hill some carries. It's just not necessary, you know? Why not keep Hill fresh for when the games get really important – like, say, if the Badgers reach the Rose Bowl?

Besides, despite UW running backs coach John Settle's claim that Hill's target is 25 to 30 carries a game, that seems like an awful lot. It's no easy thing for a guy to get tackled 300 times a season, especially when the guy has an injury history like Hill's.

I know, I know, Hill's predecessor, Brian Calhoun, ran the ball 348 times in 2005, racked up 1,636 yards, was healthy the entire season, yadda yadda yadda. You think that workhorse load may have affected BC's future? The Detroit Lion has missed more games in his first two NFL seasons (21) than he has total carries (14).

You'd just hate to see Hill's future – or even his present – go the same direction as Calhoun's.

The formula should be pretty simple for Wisconsin this year, particularly against the likes of Marshall this weekend: build a good lead, establish the run with Hill, then get him out of there and let Brown and Clay finish up.

We'll see just how cautious the Badgers are with Hill against the Thundering Herd Saturday. But at this point, it appears the coaches won't be afraid to use Hill like a workhorse.

"It depends on how (Brown and Clay) are doing," UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "If the other ones are struggling, he'd be in the 30s."

Good news, Badger fans: if Brown and Clay's efforts against Akron are any indication, Hill should stay well below that total, and have a seriously good chance to fulfill his goal of playing a complete season.

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