It hasn’t been easy to figure out just how good No. 10 Wisconsin is this year.
The Badgers thrashed their first three opponents by a combined score of 130-30, but there’s only so much to take away from victories over Utah State, BYU and FAU. After Wisconsin’s 33-24 victory over Northwestern on Saturday, it’s a bit more clear what kind of talent coach Paul Chryst has in Madison.
Specifically, the talent of freshman running back Jonathan Taylor.
Taylor’s ability to break off runs in traffic was on full display against a Northwestern defensive line that gave quarterback Alex Hornibrook all sorts of trouble in the first half. After a sloppy start in which Hornibrook tossed two interceptions, Chryst needed to establish a strong enough run game to give his quarterback more time to make plays. Taylor delivered. First with a seven-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, then again with an 11-yard touchdown to open up the second-half scoring.
Altogether, Taylor tallied 80 yards on 19 attempts with two touchdowns.
His seven total touchdowns now lead the Big Ten and his 129.5 average yards per game is the same as Penn State’s Saquon Barkley after four games, though Barkley sprang into action just after Wisconsin’s game concluded and ran the opening kick back for a touchdown.
Wisconsin has seen running backs like Taylor before. In size and stature, Taylor (5-11, 214 pounds) isn’t far off from the makeup of former Badgers Montee Ball (5-11, 205 pounds) and Melvin Gordon (6-0, 185 pounds) when they first arrived in Madison. Whether or not Taylor replicates their career success remains to be seen.
But the start of his time in Wisconsin has been enticing enough. Taylor has helped lead the Badgers to a perfect 4-0 start and kept them atop a Big Ten West that has seen Iowa look good, Minnesota look competitive until a Saturday loss to Maryland and has teams like Northwestern and Nebraska with two losses already.
Even after defeating Northwestern there’s still much to learn about this Wisconsin team. Upcoming games against Nebraska, Purdue and Maryland should provide a bit more clarity.
If Taylor keeps progressing the way he has, those could turn into easy wins. Which is exactly what happened on Saturday against the Wildcats. Despite making numerous mistakes early, Taylor emerged as a solid option in an offense that had ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten.
The pressure is now on the freshman to show he can continue in that role as the Big Ten catches up to his game. If he can, Wisconsin should find itself in the conference title game again.
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