MADISON, Wis. — The sign inside Wisconsin’s team locker room Saturday afternoon already read “Beat Illinois.” It did not mention running back Jonathan Taylor surpassing 1,000 yards rushing or entering the discussion as a potential Heisman Trophy finalist.
In Taylor’s mind, that sign provides every reason why he won’t allow the focus to shift from the team to the individual, even as he barrels through opponents each week and toward one of the most remarkable freshman campaigns in FBS history.
No. 5 Wisconsin cruised to a 38-13 victory against Maryland on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. Taylor carried 22 times for 126 yards and a touchdown. It represented yet another strong showing for Taylor, who eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the fifth time in his seven career games.
With each victory, the College Football Playoff comes closer into view as a realistic possibility for the Badgers. Wisconsin is now off to its first 7-0 start in 13 years, with a road game next against Illinois. And that’s where Taylor insists he wants to keep the discussion.
“We take it one game at a time,” Taylor said. “I don’t really think about it. I just try to be the best running back for this team. If I’m the best running back that I can be for this team, then things will fall into place. We’ll win games and things will fall into place.”
Taylor may not be paying attention, but the rest of the college football viewing audience certainly is. And what they’ve witnessed is a player who already has accomplished some special feats.
On Saturday, Taylor reached 1,000 yards rushing this season on the fewest carries by a freshman in Wisconsin program history. He required 130 rushing attempts, surpassing the 138 carries James White needed in 2010.
Taylor attained 1,000 rushing yards in his seventh game, which matched the FBS freshman record for fewest games needed to reach that figure. The other names on the list: Florida’s Emmitt Smith (1987), San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk (1991), Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson (2004), North Texas’ Jamario Thomas (2004) and Wisconsin’s P.J. Hill (2006).
“It’s very humbling,” Taylor said. “There won’t be any tailbacks like those guys. So, to be mentioned with those guys is something that’s unreal. But it also shows how hard the guys up front work. It shows that they trust me, I trust them, and we’re in this thing together.”
Taylor’s ascension has been nothing short of spectacular. He made a swift move up Wisconsin’s depth chart during preseason camp and carried 9 times for 87 yards with 1 touchdown in the season opener against Utah State. When tailback Bradrick Shaw suffered a right leg injury during that game, Taylor took over as the starter the following week against Florida Atlantic.
Taylor promptly rushed for 223 yards and 3 touchdowns to earn his first of three Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors and hasn’t given back the starting job since then. There is no indication he ever will.
Taylor’s importance to Wisconsin’s offense has increased seemingly each week. He has scored 11 of his team’s 16 rushing touchdowns and is averaging 158.9 yards rushing per game. No other running back on the team has more than 2 touchdowns or is averaging 40 yards rushing per game.
During the first half Saturday, when Wisconsin took a 21-3 lead, Taylor carried 13 times for 72 yards and 1 touchdown. The rest of the Badgers’ running backs carried 3 times for 9 yards.
Jonathan Taylor’s game-by-game rushing totals
What makes Taylor such a special player is the number of ways in which he can hurt opponents. He routinely makes the first defender miss and embraces the task of knocking would-be tacklers to the turf. Taylor was asked whether he took more pride in running away from defenders or through them.
“I definitely take pride in being able to run through somebody,” Taylor said. “If you’re in wide-open space, if you’re fast, you’re going to pull away. But if you’re able to run through somebody, then you’ll have the opportunity to run away. I’m thinking you’ll have more opportunities to run through somebody than run around somebody.”
Teammates agree there is no question Taylor has quickly become one of the best running backs in college football. The only real disagreement stems from which trait is his best on the field. Tight end Troy Fumagalli said Taylor’s natural patience and balance stand out most. Left tackle Michael Deiter cited Taylor’s ability to break tackles. And wide receiver A.J. Taylor said his overall hard-charging style was difficult to stop.
“It’s like a train,” A.J. Taylor said. “In practice, he runs by me and he maybe hits me and I go flying. He just runs hard, like a bowling ball. It’s crazy.”
Added quarterback Alex Hornibrook: “How he runs the ball is ridiculous. Another thing is his composure. He’s a freshman. Usually freshmen, once people are talking, they kind of get pulled in different directions. He’s always locked in ready to go and you can see it in his eyes.”
If there is anything to monitor with Taylor, it’s the sheer volume of work he has taken so early in his career. Only nine other FBS running backs entered the day with more carries than Taylor. He now has carried 149 times in seven games, an average of 21.3 attempts per game.
Afterward, Taylor said he felt prepared to handle the workload. But Badgers coaches will continue to monitor it.
“You want to be attentive to it,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “I don’t think it’s a special number or something that way. It’s communication and making sure that you’re doing a good job with them during the week. [Sunday] will be good for him. How do you get your body back? He’s young and we’ve got great assistance with that.”
Perhaps the scariest aspect of Taylor’s game is that he still has room to improve. Taylor lost a fumble at Wisconsin’s own 5-yard line late in the first quarter. Wisconsin’s defense held Maryland to a field goal to keep the Badgers in front 7-3. But it marked Taylor’s third lost fumble this season and second in as many games.
“Just make sure that my teammates know I’m still here and I’m still fighting with them,” Taylor said of his mindset after a mistake. “If I’m sitting down or having a bunch of self-pity, that’s not doing any good. I need to get my mind right and prepare to go help my team.”
The level at which Taylor is playing, coupled with Wisconsin’s continued dominance, means Taylor’s name has vaulted into the Heisman Trophy discussion. Since the Heisman Trophy voting began in 1935, a freshman has finished in the top 5 on seven occasions. Only three of those players have been running backs: Georgia Tech’s Clint Castleberry (1942), Georgia’s Herschel Walker (1980) and Oklahoma’s Peterson (2004). Taylor very well could become the fourth.
Sports Illustrated writer Bruce Feldman ranked Taylor fifth in his “Heisman Five” this week, behind Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, Stanford running back Bryce Love, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. Taylor also ranks fifth in ESPN.com’s “Heisman watch,” which is comprised of 12 writers.
“I believe it,” Deiter said. “He’s making huge plays. I think he’s deserving of it. If they’re saying he could be it, that’s huge. That’s really cool for him. But it’s early. So, we’ve just got to keep working on winning.”
The more Wisconsin wins, the more Taylor’s name will remain in bright lights. And, even if Taylor doesn’t yet want to think that far ahead, it just may earn him a trip to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist.