Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and His Once in a Lifetime Opportunity

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In the new age of college football, the age of offensive creativity, mobile quarterbacks, and spreading multiple wide receivers out off of the line of scrimmage, Wisconsin has stayed true to their brand. For my whole life time, the Badgers have been a successful team if not elite or great – after Barry Alvarez was hired before the 1990 season, they’ve finished in the AP Top 10 8 times, have won 3 Rose Bowls, and have been to 4 Big Ten Championship games. Despite winning their last five bowl games, their inability to win the big one is what is giving me pause about labeling them elite, but to deny their long-term success would be foolish. What’s most impressive is their consistency and dedication to their style, one that if not implemented to such a successful level would be deemed archaic, obsolete, and woefully out of date.

It’s almost starting to become a running joke come draft season; any draft-eligible lineman from Wisconsin will be graded as a first-rounder or top-three at his position. Wisconsin has an unbelievably simple formula that has worked so well despite being so obvious on film: take the largest linemen in the tri-state area with even a shred of athletic capability and have an unheralded if not promising running back recruit run behind them.

Aside from Russell Wilson, no quarterback from Wisconsin has made a Pro Bowl in the NFL. This is not an indictment on Wisconsin’s ability to develop quarterbacks; they simply don’t recruit quarterbacks to be game-changing positions but rather game managers who opt for the checkdown to the tight end for an easy 6 yard gain. Wisconsin’s success in my lifetime (put differently – for as long as they have been good) has come from running between the tackles, passing only when you have to or when the defense is absolutely not expecting it, and playing excellent defense. It isn’t flashy and it isn’t creative, but it works.

In terms of wins and losses, it hasn’t worked as well as Wisconsin necessarily might have liked. Their most recent bowl game against a deteriorated Miami Hurricanes squad ended the year on a high note, which felt like a mandate given their losses to BYU, Northwestern, and Minnesota on the year (Wisconsin had won the previous 14 matchups and had not lost to Northwestern and Minnesota in the same season since 2003). Between the frustration of the regular season and the matchup with Miami, it made perfect sense that Wisconsin crushed them in the Pinstripe Bowl. Miami had alternated between bad quarterbacks all season and played right into the teeth of Wisconsin’s unbelievably quick and athletic linebackers (Miami had 6 first downs and 5 turnovers in this game), completely unable to move the ball with any regularity or success. Miami did bring in a good defense (hence why Manny Diaz came to be their new head coach after Mark Richt retired), 11th overall in Defensive S&P+, but it wasn’t even close to enough – Jonathan Taylor ran for 205 yards on 27 carries and called it a day en route to a 35-3 rout that ended Richt’s listless career at Miami.

Taylor ran for 205 yards and a touchdown in the Pinstripe Bowl. Photo: Associated Press

This game was so Wisconsin it hurt. The Badger defense created multiple turnovers (even though they don’t specialize in Havoc – 57th in overall Havoc, 60th in Front 7 Havoc, and 70th in DB Havoc), and the offense slowly bled Miami dry with simple run plays between the tackles. Even though this season was far from where Wisconsin was capable of being, Jonathan Taylor is the next in a very long line of successful running backs with gaudy rushing totals. Last year he broke Adrian Peterson’s true freshman rushing record and had an even better year this year; 200 yards more in total and a half-yard more per carry – in one less game!

Through his freshman and sophomore seasons, Taylor has rushed for 4,171 yards on 606 carries and 29 touchdowns. He’s not as much of a touchdown machine as other Badger running backs have been in the past, but he has been the most efficient, and by a wide margin. His 4,171 yards in two years are a staggering total. Here is how he compares to the 10 rushers with the most rushing yards in NCAA history:

NameSchoolCareer Rushing YardsRushing Yards in First Two Active Seasons
Ron Dayne Wisconsin71253566
Tony Dorsett Pittsburgh65262690
Donnel Pumphrey San Diego State64052619
Ricky WilliamsTexas62793114
Charles WhiteUSC62452336
DeAngelo WilliamsMemphis60262114
Royce FreemanOregon56213201
Travis PrenticeMiami (OH)55962150
Archie GriffinOhio State55892444
Cedric BensonTexas55402356

Taylor had the advantage of being the bell cow back from Day 1 at Wisconsin and rushing behind an All-American line, and next year will be a true test seeing as he will have some new blockers in front of him; Michael Deiter was voted Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year and will be off to the NFL and Beau Benschwazel was a Consensus All American and is a guaranteed first round pick in April. Sophomore Tyler Biadasz was voted an Honorable Mention All American and will anchor a young line next year and the Badgers are also bringing the top tackle prospect in the nation, Logan Brown.

Jonathan Taylor has a unique opportunity in front of him to overtake Ron Dayne as the all-time leading rusher in NCAA history. His 4,171 yards through two years is far and away ahead of Dayne’s mark through two seasons, and if history were any indication, then Taylor could put together the remaining 2,954 yards with ease. That said, every name on the Top 10 table stayed at their respective school for four seasons – depending on Taylor’s draft stock after next season, when he will be eligible, he might not even stick around for his senior season (and I wouldn’t blame him). Back to back 1500 yard seasons would feel like a light warm up compared to his freshman and sophomore years.

This opens up a fascinating discussion about the success of Wisconsin running backs. In only 3 of the last 20 seasons have they not had a 1,000 yard rusher, and in those 3 seasons, the team’s leading rusher was still relatively productive (2015 – Dare Obungowale, 819 yards and 4.2 YPC; 2004 – Anthony Davis, 973, 4.8; 2003 – Dwayne Smith 857, 5.2). In every other season they’ve had a running back rush for 1,000 yards (in 2013, James White and Melvin Gordon both rushed for 1400+), but their college success doesn’t always necessarily equate success in the NFL, so the question begs to be asked – are the running backs good or is the offensive line good?

Ron Dayne is the epitome of a Badger running back, and the NCAA all-time rushing leader. Photo: Henry A. Koshollek

Wisconsin 1,000 Yard Rushers in the NFL

NameGames PlayedRushing YardsYards Per CarryTouchdowns
Ron Dayne9637223.828
Michael Bennett10937034.413
Anthony DavisDid not reach NFL
Brian Calhoun11543.90
PJ HillNo NFL stats
John Clay2414.11
James White63 (still active)8564.17
Montee Ball21 (legal troubles)7314.25
Melvin Gordon55 (still active)36284.028
Corey Clement27 (still active)5804.16

Ever since John Clay graduated and struggled with knee injuries in the NFL, most Badger running backs are doing a better job of not only sticking around (Montee Ball was just as talented but was released in 2016 because of a domestic assault charge) but excelling. James White has won two Super Bowls and is a weapon out of the backfield for the Patriots, Corey Clement has a Super Bowl ring with the Eagles and Melvin Gordon has been elected to 2 Pro Bowls and is the first Wisconsin 1,000 yard rusher since Michael Bennett did it in 2002. The trend is moving more in favor of the narrative that the backs are equally as skilled as the linemen, and I think Taylor is no exception.

Photo: Brandon Harrison

Regardless of his NFL future, his immediate future in the Big Ten is incredibly bright, and Wisconsin’s recent recruiting shows an effort to buck their trend – the 2019 class features composite #17 overall player and #1 OT Logan Brown as well as a 4-star and composite top 100 quarterback in Graham Mertz. Given the current Badger quarterback room, Mertz could start day one – having that line and Taylor is an awfully nice safety net – and their schedule is favorable as well (except for the crossover portion).

Opponent2018 W-L2018 Defensive S&P+Jonathan Taylor Career Yards Against
Michigan10-36th234, 6.5 ypc
Northwestern9-535th126, 4.2
Kent State2-10118thN/A
Michigan State7-61stN/A
@Illinois4-8122nd232, 5.9
@Ohio State13-134th41, 2.7
Iowa9-418th270, 5
@Nebraska4-865th470, 9.5
Purdue6-794th540, 8.5
@Minnesota7-637th269, 6.9 (nice)

The dude could get 1500 yards between the Big Ten West opponents alone. I’ll be watching his stats very closely this season; if he can get to 2,000 yards again he’ll be right up there with that Top 10 list I had previously showed you, and within a relative stone’s throw away from being the NCAA’s all time rushing leader (as well as being the 2nd player only to have consecutive 2,000 yard seasons – Troy Davis, ISU), as well as joining a bevy of other exclusive lists:

  • He has rushed for 200 yards in 8 separate games. 3 more times will join him with Marcus Allen, Ron Dayne, and Ricky Williams for most 200-yard rushing games all time
  • A 1500 yard season would put him in the ranks of Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker, Donnel Pumphrey, and more for more seasons with 1500 yards (3).
  • At his current rate (303 carries per season), he will land just 3 carries shy of the all time attempts record assuming he stays for his senior season (1215), held by Colorado State’s Steve Bartalo.
  • If he rushed for 1,000 yards for the next two years, he would be the 10th running back in NCAA history with 1,000 yards in all four of his collegiate seasons
  • He’s rushed for 100 yards in a game 22 times. DeAngelo Williams holds that record with 34 games of 100 yards, so it isn’t out of reach for Taylor this season (he rushed for 100 yards 12 out of 13 games in 2018) but he will easily smash it should he stay in Madison.

Taylor is a unique combination of speed, durability, and power that college football rarely sees anymore. More often than not, a feature back at a Power 5 school will explode for one or maybe two truly excellent seasons, but Taylor has a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here. A gifted offensive line, questionable quarterback play, an easy schedule, and no ‘lightning’ to his ‘thunder’ (a dumb way of saying he’ll get the vast majority of Wisconsin’s carries). Regardless of what happens, he’ll have had an amazing career with Wisconsin, but he could become a legend in the next two years.

Header photo: USA Today Sports Media