Hill fights off heavy legs, Thomas heavy heart in dominant heart

first_imgAfter producing a 249-yard day on the ground, P.J. Hill had little explanation for how he came up with his biggest game out of what has already been an explosive first season.”Last game, my legs were pretty heavy,” said Hill, who earned a career-best 35 carries against Northwestern. “I took this week just to get healthy, and just went out there and just played the best game I could play.”If Hill’s legs felt heavy, one could only imagine the weight on Joe Thomas’ shoulders — not to mention his heart — during the game.Thomas, along with fellow Badgers Ben Strickland and Steve Johnson, suffered a great loss at the beginning of the week’s preparation for Northwestern, when their friend and high school teammate Luke Homan drowned in the Mississippi River in La Crosse.The trio of Badgers helped try to find Homan after he went missing the evening of Sept. 29. The search was ended when Homan’s body was found in the river the morning of Oct. 2, but Thomas and others were excused from much of the week’s practice sessions in light of the tragedy.”On Sunday, when they called me, you could tell they were upset, and had to go through certain things,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said. “On Monday, the discovery of all that they went through and ultimately on Thursday, with the services that they went through. They practiced well Tuesday and Wednesday, I think they wanted to honor him with their play.”Going in with only one practice under his belt for the week, Thomas spoke after the Badgers’ 41-9 defeat of Northwestern of his struggle to ready himself for the game.”This was a really hard week for myself [and] some of the other guys [that] knew Luke,” Thomas said during an emotional six-minute conference. “It was exceptionally hard being gone all week, going through all the different emotions. You go into the game with so little preparation and so much on your mind, it’s a miracle that we played as well as we did.”Thomas, who played basketball with Homan at Brookfield Central High, made sure that Bielema arranged for a game ball to be personally delivered to the Homan family by the Badgers.”I grew up doing everything with their family and doing everything with Luke, going to basketball tournaments, football games and everything,” Thomas said. “The only people more devastated than us are his family. It really meant a lot to be able to do something for them.”Thomas admitted that despite helping Hill spring for the 10th-largest rushing total in the stellar history of Wisconsin’s running game, his focus wasn’t completely on the field.”Going into the game, I’ve never had so much on my mind, never thought so little about the game,” Thomas said. “But as soon as that whistle blew, somehow, someway, I was able to go out there and know what was going on.”However Thomas may have played, his linemates must have put in a little extra to pick up the slack. Hill wasn’t the only Badger to excel on the ground against the Wildcats; Dywon Rowan returned from a carry-less Indiana game to earn 16 yards and a touchdown on four runs. Lance Smith also chipped in 40 yards on six carries, including a 25-yard run to cap the afternoon.”Anytime you can rush for 300 yards, that’s a pretty complete [game], I would say,” UW quarterback John Stocco said. “The guys up front did a great job, and all those guys running it, Lance had a great run at the end, Dywon had a couple nice moves, all those guys did a good job for us.”Hill set the tone early, scampering for 60 yards — huffing and puffing for the final 15 — and a touchdown on the game’s second play from scrimmage.”It was just all about being patient,” Hill said. “I was very patient and I read my blocks, I saw an opening, I took the hole, and then I just took it the distance.”Thomas said the early boost from Hill’s run helped to get him into the game a little bit more than he had been at kickoff just moments earlier.”I think it helped, going out there and getting a nice big play right off the bat,” Thomas said. “It really helps get your mind a little more focused.”Making things especially difficult for the Badgers’ emotions was the fact that Homan had planned on coming to Madison for Wisconsin’s first home game in three weeks.”Going up there and being with all my friends, family members, just seeing all the outreach and the support that we had for Luke, that felt so good and it really reinforced the brotherhood that we all had,” Thomas said. “Then we were able to come back here and play a good game in front of a lot of people up there who were really close friends with Luke.”It really feels good to win one for him, because he was supposed to be down here for this game.”last_img

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