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September 29, 2007
MADISON, Wis. — If Wisconsin is to win the Big Ten championship, it will do so on the sturdy legs of running back P.J. Hill.
Or perhaps on the arm of quarterback Tyler Donovan.
Maybe even in the hands of receiver Travis Beckum.
If the Badgers fall short, you might blame the shoulders and feet of their defenders.
The beefy Hill helped keep his team in the driver's seat for the conference crown by running for 155 yards and two touchdowns Saturday in a 37-34 win over game but self-destructive Michigan State at Camp Randall Stadium.
Hill, who had 110 yards by halftime, has now rushed for 100 yards or more 12 times in his career, including his last four games.
He had plenty of help from his huge offensive line, which averages upwards of 314 pounds.
When Hill wasn't running, Donovan was throwing. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns, his day dinged by a pair of interceptions.
Donovan's favorite target was Beckum, who caught 10 balls for 132 yards and a TD.
As much as there was to celebrate on offense, Wisconsin has cause for pause on defense.
No. 9 WISCONSIN 37, MICHIGAN STATE 34
Player of the game
Wisconsin running back P.J. Hill ran for 155 yards and two TDs. It was his fourth consecutive game with 100 or more yards. His 34 rushing attempts were a season high.
Points actually. Three Michigan State penalties helped sustain what turned out to be the winning drive for the Badgers in the fourth quarter. The fouls included a roughing the passer call, a personal foul and a defensive holding call in the end zone.
Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer had a strong day despite being sacked five times. He completed 22 of 36 passes for 323 yards and two touchdowns.
What this means for Wisconsin
The Badgers stay in the Big Ten title hunt. With games ahead against Michigan and Ohio State, they must focus on improving their efforts on defense if they hope to make it to Pasadena.
What this means for Michigan State
The Spartans are better than most expected them to be. At 4-1 they are well on their way to being bowl eligible, which would be a testament to their progress under first-year coach Mark Dantonio. But the foolish penalties, which have driven MSU fans nuts for years, must be eradicated.
Michigan State's Chris Rucker and Wisconsin's Marcus Randle El were ejected from the game with 6:56 left in the half after trading punches.
The Spartans' Nehemiah Warrick knocked Badgers receiver Kyle Jefferson out of the game with 10 seconds left in the half, delivering a blow to Jefferson as he caught a pass. Jefferson suffered an undisclosed head injury.
Wisconsin's 14-game winning streak is the second longest in school history. ? The Badgers have won 11 consecutive home games and 22 of their past 23. ? Hill moved to ninth on Wisconsin's all-time rushing list (2,236 yards). ? Michigan State's defense, which came in yielding just 15.5 points per game and 170 passing yards per game, was torched for 37 and 247.
The reality: Had Michigan State not killed itself with three ridiculous, drive-sustaining penalties and not made a couple of dicey play calls on offense, Wisconsin's national best, 14-game winning streak might very well be over. The rise that the Badgers expect to make in the national polls in the wake of Upset Saturday would instead be a decline.
"It's the plays that we didn't make that concern me," coach Bret Bielema, a former defensive coordinator, said. "I didn't expect to see 1,000 yards of total offense out there today."
Did anyone expect to see the Big Ten look this, well, mucked up?
The state of the conference remains fuzzy. The Badgers are off to a 5-0, 2-0 league start, but have been less than impressive in doing so. They nearly fell to lowly UNLV, struggled against the Citadel and were an overthrown pass from losing to struggling Iowa last week.
That makes them ? the team to beat?
Ohio State (5-0, 2-0) plays defense as well as anyone, but what will its still-maturing offense do when it graduates past playing Youngstown State and Akron, Northwestern and Minnesota?
Purdue (5-0, 1-0) has been surprising and has a standout quarterback in Curtis Painter. But the Boilermakers yielded 432 yards of offense Saturday to Notre Dame, the same Fighting Irish squad that couldn't score on Briana Scurry.
Michigan State (4-1, 1-0) probably blew its first and best chance to be a factor by failing to finish the job here.
Penn State (3-2, 0-2)? Done after consecutive losses to Michigan and Illinois.
The Illini? Another surprise, now 4-1, 2-0 and next up for the Badgers.
And we haven't even brought up the preseason favorite Wolverines (3-2, 2-0), with their pratfall against Appalachian State and subsequent slaughter at the hands of Oregon. They struggled Saturday at Northwestern, but might have as good a chance as anyone to win this thing.
It might not be pretty, but it all adds up to what should be an interesting couple months en route to the Rose Bowl.
Gerry Ahern is a senior editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Gerry a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.