The Wisconsin football team that the Gophers will face Saturday won’t be contending for a College Football Playoff berth, as it had hoped. The Badgers aren’t in the mix for a Big Ten title or a West Division crown, either. And at 7-4, they won’t have a chance at a fourth consecutive season of at least 10 victories under coach Paul Chryst.
But what the Badgers will have on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium is a dangerous player largely regarded as the best running back in college football: Jonathan Taylor.
On Monday, Taylor was one of three players named as a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation’s top running back. The 5-foot-11, 221-pound sophomore leads all FBS rushers with 1,869 yards — nearly 350 yards ahead of his nearest pursuer. He is averaging 169.9 rushing yards per game and has 15 touchdown runs.
“They’re going to put everything behind Taylor,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said of the Badgers. “They’re going to make sure he leads them to do everything — pass game, play-action game. He’s a tremendous, tremendous football player.”
That was on display Saturday at Purdue, where Taylor rushed 33 times for a career-high 321 yards in Wisconsin’s 47-44, triple-overtime victory. He rushed for three touchdowns — an 80-yarder in the third quarter, a 12-yarder in the first overtime and the winning 17-yarder in the third OT.
“I gave everything for my teammates. We’ve been through so much this season,” Taylor said. “I want to send the seniors off right, so I’m doing everything in my power to get them out of here with a win. It took everything I had.”
Badgers senior linebacker T.J. Edwards appreciated the effort and Taylor’s message.
“That’s the kind of guy he is, but I tell you what: We were following him,” Edwards said. “That dude was on top of it.”
The performance earned Taylor Big Ten co-offensive player of the week honors, and on Saturday he needs 131 rushing yards against the Gophers to reach 2,000 for the season. He just missed that milestone last year, rushing 299 times for an FBS freshman-record 1,977 yards. With 3,846 yards for his career, Taylor already has broken former Badgers star Ron Dayne’s FBS record for combined rushing yards as a freshman and sophomore.
The Gophers, of course, would like to stop Taylor from reaching 2,000 yards and in the process win Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since 2003. Key in that pursuit will be senior linebacker Blake Cashman, who made a career-high 20 tackles in a loss to Northwestern on Saturday. Cashman is the first Big Ten player to make 20 tackles in a regulation game since 2013, and he was named the conference’s co-defensive player of the week for his efforts.
Cashman, who has 29 tackles over the past two games, has led a defense that has played much better since interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi took over for the fired Robb Smith following the 55-31 loss at Illinois on Nov. 3. Under Smith, the Gophers gave up an average of 43.2 points and 507.7 yards in Big Ten play this season. Under Rossi, the Gophers beat Purdue 41-10, giving up 233 yards, and fell 24-14 to West champion Northwestern, giving up 325. Minnesota held the Boilermakers to 88 rushing yards, the Wildcats to 95.
Taylor, however, presents the stiffest challenge, and he is on a roll. Since being held to 46 yards in a 31-17 loss at Northwestern, he has rushed for 714 yards and seven TDs over the past three games. Fleck expects to see heavy doses of No. 23.
“Wisconsin is exactly who Wisconsin is,” he said. “They’re going to run the football.”