In the early days of August, with fall camp just a week or so old, I stated that it didn’t appear any true freshmen would be able to break into a major role on the University of Wisconsin football team this season, in the form of Chris Orr in 2015 or Quintez Cephus last year.
Welp. That sounds pretty silly now.
Jonathan Taylor, the fifth choice at running back at the time, currently leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (310) and is tied with Minnesota’s Shannon Brooks with four rushing touchdowns. He became the fourth UW true freshman to rush for more than 200 yards in a game with his 223-yard, three-touchdown performance Saturday against Florida Atlantic.
His out-of-nowhere emergence has become the story of the season’s first two weeks, but the small sample size and quality of competition leads to an even bigger question — can he sustain this?
That FAU defense will continue to surrender massive amounts of rushing yards. The Owls have already allowed more than any other FBS team in the country this season, and they ranked 119th out of 128 teams in that area last season.
The push UW’s offensive line produced on Saturday was comical at times, despite seeing eight FAU defenders in the box nearly all game.
While the Badgers had some issues in short-yardage situations, the majority of rushing attempts Saturday looked more like those. Most of the miscues in the running game came from the odd tight end/wide receiver whiff or a miscommunication up front (which still needs cleaning up heading into this week).
Taylor dominated in his own right, though. Let’s take another look at his second touchdown run, along with a carry late in the third quarter.
The tackling is awful on the touchdown, but Taylor shows improbable balance and strength to bounce off defenders and not lose any momentum. In the second video, he keeps his feet under him when making a defender miss in the backfield, and it barely slows him down. Taylor said last week that he practiced yoga in high school, something that’s helped make balance an asset when running the football.
His 64-yard touchdown run one drive earlier also showed that Taylor possesses legitimate speed, especially for a 5-foot-11, 214-pound back. I love how much of a no-nonsense runner he is. If there’s room to get up field, he’s going to take it.
Taylor already looks like a mature runner. He’s got good vision and doesn’t waste time dancing behind the line of scrimmage or trying to make more out of run than what’s actually available.
Taylor was far from faultless against FAU. He could have possibly done more to prevent the Owls’ second-quarter goal-line stand, especially on the fourth-down play, and he lost a fumble. Yards won’t always come this easy for Taylor, and he’ll probably have a couple ugly games throughout the course of the season. However, he already looks like the most talented running back the Badgers have on their roster.
Expect a big season from the freshman. The Heisman? That may have to wait.
— Leon Jacobs may be a bit faster than I’ve given him credit for in the past. He’s always had obvious strength (his bench max is 435 pounds), but watch him start this play near the left hash before taking down FAU running back Devin Singletary on the opposite sideline for a five-yard gain.
Although he was basically unblocked, Jacobs also got into the backfield quickly on his third-down sack to begin the fourth quarter.
The task of replacing T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel was massive entering the season, but Jacobs and Dooley have both played well through two games.
Watt and Biegel had many strengths, but there’s two things they did at an elite level that elevated the Badgers’ defense — getting after the quarterback and setting a hard edge that funneled running backs to UW’s playmakers on the inside.
Jacobs and Dooley have been more than competent with the latter, but it’s difficult to get a feel for what they could become as pass rushers. Both had an unblocked sack Saturday, but the short, quick passing game employed by both FAU and Utah State didn’t allow them too many chances to show what they can do in that area.
I’m curious to see what kind of pass rush UW can generate in its next few games. Here are a few more notes I gathered after re-watching Saturday’s win:
— Some fans may roll their eyes at this one, but Alex Hornibrook actually didn’t play as poorly as I initially thought. He did make some impressive throws throughout the day, and his 16-of-28 passing line was hurt by a few drops.
By no means am I saying he played a good game. He missed the target often (although I don't think arm strength was the issue), and he threw the brutal interception that could have allowed FAU to get back in the game. To suggest he should be benched, though, is a massive overreaction.
— From my untrained eye, it appears the Badgers have remained quite vanilla on defense these first two games. They haven’t pulled out any exotic blitz packages and have only lined up in simple base or nickel packages.
— Jason Erdmann played OK when he entered the game at left guard with the second unit for the final drive of Saturday’s game, but it’s difficult to gauge how he’d fare in a starting role against BYU if Jon Dietzen and Beau Benzschawel aren’t able to play due to right leg injuries. The Badgers can only hope they don’t have to find out.