Sports

Jonathan Taylor’s record performance brings Badgers past slow start and closer to the College Football Playoff

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M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL

 

Emmitt Smith. Marshall Faulk. Adrian Peterson. What do they all have in common? No, it’s not that they’re all black men who are definitely first-ballot Hall of Famers (Peterson still playing). They reached 1,000 rushing yards in the fewest games in college football history.  UW-Madison’s Jonathan Taylor joined this elite group in Saturday’s 38-13 win over the Maryland Terrapins.

JT23 etched his name in the record books in only his seventh game. The true freshman dominated proceedings, running Maryland ragged for 128 yards on 22 carries and one touchdown. However, his presence is shown by more than stats. “Physically, the way he breaks tackles and the stuff that everybody sees, how he runs the ball is ridiculous, but another thing is his composure,” Sophomore Quarterback Alex Hornibrook addresses Taylor’s intangibles. The consistency he brings on the ground opens up aerial options for Hornibrook, who went 16 of 24 for 225 yards and two touchdowns. Even when he’s not on field, Taylor’s production keeps defenses on their toes. Both of Hornibrook’s scores came from play-action passes where the Terrapins’ front 7 keyed in on the running back, leaving open space for receivers to slide into. This type of attention makes Taylor’s impact reach farther than just one player. “I think he’s as good as anybody there is. He ‘s the best running back I’ve seen,” Hornibrook gushes about his partner in the backfield.

However, it was a not flawless game for Taylor and the Badgers by any means. A fumble deep into Badger territory by the true freshman handed points to the Terrapins. The defense stood firm and held them to a field goal. This accountability held by the entire team brings a togetherness that pushes the Badgers past opponents. “At that time it’s always good to go out and put your foot down and make a stand. To hold them to three in that moment is such a big energy boost for this team. We all kind of feed of that” Junior Inside Linebacker T.J. Edwards comments on the rigid stance his unit took after Taylor coughed up the football. Edwards finished the game with five tackles and an interception returned 4 yards for a touchdown.

Along with JT23’s fumble, Hornibrook had a terrible pass intercepted by Maryland’s Josh Woods early in the first quarter. Hornibrook has suffered from forcing passes into bad spots before, racking up his seventh pick in as many games. However, this seemed to settle him down as his connection with Senior Tight End Troy Fumagalli allowed for the offense to find rhythm. “That’s an aspect of the game that he does a tremendous job with, having that ‘Next Play’ mentality. We trust the guys. We trust him and we know he’s gonna come back strong,” Fumagalli, who was a model of consistency with game-high 7 catches for 83 yards, addresses his confidence in the #12 under center.

Homecoming not only conjured a wedding proposal towards the middle of the third quarter, but the players clearly fed off of the crowd’s energy. After the slow start, the team rallied with the 78,000+ crowd to two straight scores and four consecutive drives entering Terrapin territory. From older couples decked out in red and white overalls to kids running around Camp Randall, the homecoming festivities lit a fire in the stadium that transferred onto the field. “The first homecoming was great. I got my family up here this weekend, so I’ll probably spend some time with them and see if we can go to a haunted house or something!” Taylor reflects on his inaugural Homecoming week.

The bounce back qualities the Badgers displayed led by JT23 are going to make them very dangerous.  Mistakes do not seem to phase anyone, including Coach Paul Chryst. “Well, I loved his response. You know, you never want to turn the ball over. Obviously we’ve got to continue to do a better job of coaching that, right, and helping them. Not one kid wants to – Alex didn’t want to throw a pick, and J.T. didn’t want to put the ball on the ground, so we’ll go back and look” It seemed like the game plan stayed consistent, regardless of mistakes. It also doesn’t hurt to have Jonathan Taylor breaking records as a last resort. “We’ve got a lot more football to be played, and we’ve got to continue to get better… And we’ve got to help him continue to grow and become the best player he can be, and it takes everyone. It’s fun when you watch good running plays, it’s every guy in it is part of it, and J.T. knows that.”

After garnering this 7-0 start with no signs of slowing down, the team’s camaraderie is sky-high. “D’Cota Dixon always comes up to me before the game and tells me that we got your back so the defense plays great game in, game out. We have one of the best defenses in the country and we stand behind them 100%. Every time they step on the field, we better be ready because they could take the ball away at any time”,  Jonathan Taylor speaks on how the defense picks the offense up and doesn’t let the team fall because of one mistake.

“I definitely hear it, but they already got the poster up in the locker room ‘Beat Illinois’ so we take it one game at a time and that’s what we’re focused on.” Now Taylor says he don’t pay attention to the Heisman talk, but it’s a travesty that his name is not always in the same breath as Penn State RB Saquon Barkley and Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, the top two candidates at this moment. Statistically, Taylor has better stats than Barkley (insert stats) and despite multiple slow starts, the Badgers still sport a big fat 0 in that loss column while Mayfield’s Sooners fell to unranked Iowa State and have been on a downward trend, barely beating Texas in the Red River Rivalry. It’s a shame that JT23 needed this record to thrust himself into the conversation, but nobody will be overlooking this Black Badger anymore.

Chris Orr’s injury could be a concern moving forward, but with JT23 on a grind that looks to be headed for Times Square and the Heisman Trophy ceremony and a defense that refuses to run out of firepower, the Badgers’ ambitions have no limits.

Nile Lansana is a rising Senior from the Southside of Chicago, IL, attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is double majoring in Journalism and Creative Writing. Nile is an award winning poet in his own right as well as with Rebirth Poetry Ensemble, which is an artist community focused on uplifting youth with writing and performance through the lens of social justice. He is a First Wave Scholar, repping the 11th Cohort.

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