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Hilliard packs punch in Tigers' late surge

8/31/2014

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Through three quarters Saturday night, Kenny Hilliard and LSU’s offensive line had done nothing to give their coaches confidence that they’d dominate the fourth quarter against a stiff Wisconsin defense.

LSU’s running game had accounted for next to nothing, and it didn’t appear that anyone was going to break through since the Tigers were in desperation mode and the Badgers carried a double-digit lead into the final period.

“[The offensive linemen] were pretty upset because we had 16 yards in the first half,” Hilliard said. “They knew we were better than that.”

It took some time for them to prove it, but they were right. The Tigers wore down Wisconsin’s defensive front -- and it certainly helped that two of the Badgers’ starting linemen left the game with injuries -- and took over in the fourth quarter. While Hilliard, Leonard Fournette and Terrence Magee had found little or no running room earlier in the game, Hilliard was able to blow through big holes inthe fourth quarter -- and the Tigers kept feeding him.

He entered the fourth quarter with seven carries for eight yards -- while Fournette had seven carries for 21 yards through three quarters and Magee had five attempts for six yards -- but Hilliard essentially was LSU’s offense toward the end of the game. The senior carried 11 times for 102 yards in the fourth quarter alone, finishing with 18 totes for 110 yards and the go-ahead 28-yard touchdown.

Four of Hilliard’s 11 fourth-quarter carries achieved first downs. A fifth was the touchdown that gave LSU its first lead of the night with 9:41 to play.

“At the end of the day, they ran the ball well and they made a gigantic play,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “The last touchdown they got broke the game open.”

Before LSU kneeled to run out the clock on its final two snaps, Hilliard ran the ball on 10 of the Tigers’ previous 12 plays. He got the ball all three times before the kneeldowns, forcing the Badgers to use their three timeouts and achieving the crucial first down that secured the win with a 4-yard gain on his final run of the night. On the Tigers’ go-ahead touchdown drive, Hilliard got the ball on all three plays, running for gains of 17 and eight before his 28-yard scoring run.

It was as dramatic a turnaround as even the most loyal LSU supporter could have imagined.

“That’s something with our offense,” Hilliard said. “Whomever can get in there and get the hot hand and first downs will basically stay in the game.”

But what does Hilliard’s Saturday success mean moving forward? He has played the role of fourth-quarter punisher in LSU’s offense before, but opportunities to become the Tigers’ featured back have been rare.

Fournette didn’t make the immediate splash many media members had predicted, but he and Magee will still get their share of the workload. As Hilliard said, this was a time where the Tigers found a late spark on a night that had been full of frustration and stuck with what had started working.

“I felt like Kenny Hilliard played hard,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I like Leonard Fournette’s contribution, did just what we asked him to do, ran hard, returned a couple of kicks. We’re a blue-collar team that will fight like hell and get in competitive games and scrap you. This was one of those times.”

Even after his strong first outing, Hilliard’s vision of his backfield role didn’t seem to change.

He has been one cog in a multifaceted LSU running game throughout his career, and Hilliard doesn’t expect the Tigers to alter that philosophy. He and Magee still expect to help Fournette and fellow freshman Darrel Williams develop bigger roles as the season progresses.

“That’s how it was for us when me and Terrence came in,” Hilliard said. “Guys like Alfred Blue, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, they were able to take us underneath their wings and show us the way. That’s what we’re here for. We have to help lift each other and stay positive.”