MADISON, Wis. — Jonathan Taylor should have been stopped for a 1-yard loss on the carry. So many other college running backs surely would have panicked at the sight of an unblocked tackler staring him down in the backfield. But Taylor merely sidestepped him as though he weren’t even there.
What happened next during No. 10 Wisconsin’s 31-14 victory against Florida Atlantic on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium was the type of thing that left mouths agape and heads doing double takes. And what it demonstrated was how truly special Taylor can be in the running back rotation this season and beyond for the Badgers
It was second-and-1 from the Florida Atlantic 32 when Taylor moved his feet ever so slightly to avoid that first tackler. He then ran around the left edge, brushed past one defender, chugged through a second defender draped all over him and lowered his shoulder to knock a third defender to the turf.
There was nothing but open field for Taylor from there down the left sideline on his way to the end zone for a stunning 32-yard touchdown. And for the sake of Florida Atlantic’s defense, it’s probably a good thing nobody else stood in his path.
Not bad for a freshman playing his second college game.
"How does Wisconsin do it?"
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“You never want to think you’re stopped for a loss,” Taylor said of the play afterward. “You always have to stay confident. Just trying to get as many yards as possible using everything in your arsenal to try to beat the guys in front of you.”
Taylor put his full arsenal on display throughout, and it was a sight to behold for the 77,542 fans in attendance. When he was finished, he had carried 26 times for 223 yards with 3 touchdowns. He averaged 8.6 yards per rushing attempt, which might be considered a victory of sorts for Florida Atlantic considering he opened the game with 6 carries for 119 yards — a 19.8 yards-per-carry average. On Saturday, Taylor scored on touchdown runs of 64, 32 and 4 yards.
Taylor’s combination of vision, balance, strength and speed has amazed his teammates, particularly considering how early he is in his career.
“The first run that I saw him, I think he broke off like four tackles at once,” Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook said. “I was laughing on the field. It was crazy to see. He’s a great running back.”
When fall camp began, Taylor was fourth or fifth on the depth chart, and there were legitimate reasons to wonder whether he might be best served by taking a redshirt season. With a glut of three running backs ahead of him — Bradrick Shaw, Chris James and Taiwan Deal — as well as graduate transfer Rachid Ibrahim, there didn’t appear to be much room for Taylor this season.
But then Deal suffered a right leg injury in camp, and Taylor earned his opportunity. During a Friday night scrimmage two weeks before the season, Taylor broke a 70-yard touchdown run against the first-team defense. He added a touchdown reception after catching a one-handed pass over the middle. It quickly became clear he would contribute in some capacity.
“He’s a baller, man,” Wisconsin defensive end Alec James said. “You saw the stats today. We saw it in camp. We realized it real early. His first rep on our first defense in our scrimmage he broke for a touchdown. We experienced it firsthand. He’s going to be a good player. He’s a special player.”
In the season opener last week, Taylor led the team in rushing yards (87) and added a touchdown despite carrying only 9 times. Shaw carried 18 times for 84 yards with 1 touchdown. But Shaw sustained a right leg injury, and Taylor continued to rise up the depth chart entering Saturday.
Taylor said running backs coach John Settle told him he would start the game if Wisconsin’s offense opened in either the “21” personnel (two tailbacks, one tight end, two receivers) or “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers). James was to get the start if Wisconsin opened in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers). Taylor earned the start, carried 3 times for 23 yards on the first drive and then broke a big 64-yard touchdown run on the next drive to give Wisconsin a 7-0 lead just 5 minutes into the game.
Taylor, who set the single-season New Jersey high school rushing record in 2016, said the game last week was important to help him become more comfortable in the Camp Randall environment.
“Especially from where I come from,” Taylor said. “I think my senior year we had like 1,000 people at the Thanksgiving game. It definitely was good for me getting some experience Week 1 coming into this week.”
Just how good was Taylor on Saturday? He became only the fourth freshman in school history to rush for 200 yards, joining Alan Ameche (1951), Ron Dayne (1996) and Zach Brown (2007). Ameche and Dayne, of course, went on to win the Badgers’ two Heisman trophies. The last Wisconsin player to rush for at least 200 yards was Melvin Gordon, who capped his career with 251 yards to earn MVP honors in the 2015 Outback Bowl. Gordon finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting that season.
Taylor also became the first true freshman starter at running back for Wisconsin since Brown started the final four games of the 2007 season. The last true freshman to rush for at least 3 touchdown for Wisconsin was James White, who recorded 4 against Austin Peay on Sept. 25, 2010.
“He’s a beast,” Badgers inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said of Taylor. “He’s slashing us in the summer as well. I was excited just to see him on the field. He’s showing why he’s one of the featured backs right now. I’m happy for him. I’m going to see what he’s doing tonight. I want to follow him, see who he’s hanging out with.”
Despite his strong performance, Taylor still demonstrated areas in which he can improve. Early in the second quarter, Wisconsin had a first-and-goal from the Florida Atlantic 6-yard line. Taylor took four consecutive carries but couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone. Some of the blame fell on the offensive line for not creating more of a push, but Taylor shouldered part of the responsibility as well afterward.
“On the goal line, a lot of blitzes, a lot of pressures coming in,” Taylor said. “I’m definitely going to work on that a lot at practice. That was my first time in a game situation and on the goal line having to punch it in.”
Later in the game, Taylor lost a fumble while fighting for extra yardage after a 14-yard gain during the third quarter. Wisconsin led only 24-14 at the time, but Florida Atlantic could not capitalize on the turnover.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst praised Taylor’s maturity as a freshman for his response to the fumble. Taylor didn’t sulk and added a 4-yard rushing touchdown with 1:12 remaining in the third quarter to account for the final margin.
Chryst called Taylor “a person with great focus who wants to take full advantage of this opportunity” and noted Taylor’s big-play ability was a dynamic that the run game hasn’t always had in Chryst’s three-year tenure.
Taylor and James ran well in Shaw’s absence. James carried 16 times for 101 yards. The two accounted for 324 of Wisconsin’s 363 rushing yards Saturday. Wisconsin now likely has a difficult decision to make when Shaw returns from injury about how to distribute carries.
This much is certain: The more Taylor plays, the more difficult it is for Wisconsin’s coaching staff to keep him off the field.
“JT’s one of those guys, he has spark about him,” James said. “I’m really excited to see how he develops as a player throughout the rest of the season.”