MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Let the Heisman hype commence.
The 2017 college football season hasn’t even crowned a national champion yet, but based on the way Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor bulldozed his way through opponents all season, it’s clear he’ll be firmly on the short list of early Heisman Trophy candidates in 2018.
For further evidence of his breathtaking combination of power, shiftiness and vision, take what happened Saturday night during Wisconsin’s 34-24 victory against Miami in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium. Taylor carried 26 times for 130 yards to surpass Adrian Peterson’s single-season FBS freshman rushing record. Nobody else on the Badgers’ team rushed for more than 10 yards.
Taylor needed 79 yards entering the night to break Peterson’s record, and he actually surpassed the mark twice. He rushed for 6 yards on a second-and-5 play in the middle of the second quarter but then lost 2 yards to trail Peterson. Taylor regained the record on a 4-yard pitch play around the left side and never looked back.
“It means a lot,” Taylor said. “Going out, watching AP, one of my favorite running backs, to be mentioned with him amongst the top freshman rushers, it’s surreal. I just took a picture and thanked my boys [on the offensive line]. I’ve got to take them out. We had one heck of a season. I’m very grateful for them.”
Taylor finished with 1,977 yards, the fourth-best single-season total in Wisconsin history. He recorded the 10th 100-yard rushing game of his rookie season. Only Melvin Gordon (12 in 2014) had more in a season for the Badgers. That season, Gordon finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Taylor wasn’t a Heisman finalist as a freshman, although he did finish sixth in the voting.
It was a remarkable rise this season for Taylor, who began fall camp as the fourth- or fifth-string running back. During a scrimmage two weeks before the season opener against Utah State, Taylor scored two eye-opening touchdowns, including one against the No. 1 defense. Badgers running backs coach John Settle knew Taylor was someone capable of contributing at that point. But no one could have foreseen Taylor’s ascension.
He earned the starting job in Week 2, rushed for 223 yards with 3 touchdowns against Florida Atlantic and held on to the starting role the rest of the way. Taylor had games with 249 rushing yards against Nebraska, 219 yards against Purdue and 183 yards against Indiana. And each week, he gained traction as a viable Heisman candidate during his freshman season.
When he begins next season as a sophomore, there will be no sneaking up on opponents.
“People probably know what’s coming when they’re playing JT,” Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook said. “He made his name well known this year.”
Taylor’s biggest bugaboo is his inability to hold on to the football. He lost his sixth fumble of the season early in the first quarter Saturday night, after he gained 14 yards down to the Miami 33. Taylor stayed in the game on Wisconsin’s next offensive possession and his 39 yards on 4 carries to help set up a field goal to give the Badgers a 3-0 lead.
“I think [next season] will start with the Heisman hype, and they should,” Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter said. “He’s that special, and he plays mature. He put a ball on the ground again and just kept battling. He wasn’t hanging his head. He knows he’ll make the next play. He does have some stuff to clean up, and that’s encouraging because how good he is and he can get even better, that’s crazy to think. The sky is the limit.”
Taylor said he wasn’t aware of how close he was to Peterson’s record until the Big Ten title game against Ohio State. In that game, Taylor was held in check for the first time all season, finishing with 41 yards on 15 carries.
“After the Ohio State game, I saw I only had 79 left,” Taylor said. “I knew we were going to have to bounce back this game coming off that loss. I knew me and the guys were going to play our hearts out. When we play our hearts out, anything is possible. I was very confident coming into the game.”
Taylor said he assumed the start of next season would involve its share of Heisman discussion and noted he needed to be locked in from the start, ready to put together another memorable season.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst recognizes he has a special player returning to lead the backfield. And Taylor will be a known commodity from the outset.
“That’s pretty impressive,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said of Taylor’s freshman season. “It puts him in a group. For him, I hope he takes time to look back and appreciate what happened. Certainly he had a big part of it, but there’s so many people around him that did. And then how do you take that and continue to move forward, which I’m confident that he will.”