The names come tumbling back, like boulders careening down a mountain, carrying the power to crush the spirits of long-suffering Gophers fans.
Ron Dayne, whose 297 yards brought boos in Camp Randall when the Badgers finished off Minnesota by taking a knee rather than giving him the ball. Montee Ball. Melvin Gordon. James White. Anthony Davis, whose 301 yards in a 2002 debacle still sting. An anonymous freshman named Zach Brown, who romped around the Metrodome for 250 yards in 2007, then never managed even another 100-yard day in his career.
Now comes Jonathan Taylor, the latest and some might say greatest in Wisconsin’s long line of power running backs. Kirk Ferentz thinks so, anyway.
“As good a running back as we’ve seen during our time here,” Ferentz, now in his 21st season as Iowa’s head coach, told reporters, “and we’ve played against some pretty good players.”
True, but none of them had ever shredded a Ferentz defense for 250 yards in one game, the way Taylor did earlier this month in a 24-22 victory over Iowa. His day included six rushes of more than 10 yards, including bursts of 36 and 42 yards in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
“Those plays break your back. They’re tough to come back from. You’re on edge the entire game as long as he’s out there,” Ferentz said. “… Taylor is just an elite football player.”
That’s an adjective sure to catch the attention of the Gophers, who own the West Division’s second-best rushing defense in Big Ten games. Only one running back has reached triple digits against Minnesota this year: Penn State freshman Journey Brown, with 124 yards. That was the Gophers’ biggest victory of the season, so they can overcome standout performances.
But the challenge this week is an order of magnitude more difficult.
“He’s just a different kind of running back, the way he can kind of plug his body, make people miss, find little gaps,” said Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber, who was part of the 2018 defense that held Taylor to “just” 120 yards, the Badger back’s fewest during a November surge that delivered him the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back. “And then you have the speed. He can run away from you.”
Taylor’s career has outrun several big-name comparisons, and not just to his Badger backfield forerunners. He was sixth in Heisman balloting two years ago after breaking Adrian Peterson’s freshman rushing record with a 1,977-yard season that included 149 yards against the Gophers. Then he finished ninth in Heisman voting last December after gaining 2,194 yards. His 1,685 yards this season, an average of 6.5 per carry, rank second in the college ranks behind Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard, and his career total of 5,856 yards is the most ever by a player through his junior season; Taylor passed Herschel Walker’s 5,596 yards two weeks ago.
“He’s light on his feet, sees holes, does everything well,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters. “You just try to contain him. Not a realistic thing to think you can stop him.”
Taylor proved it by torching the Wolverines for 203 yards, the second most a Harbaugh team has ever allowed. It was one of Taylor’s 12 career 200-yard games, also the most in FBS history, or one more than Dayne, Marcus Allen and Ricky Williams collected in their Hall of Fame careers. He enters Saturday’s game having eclipsed 200 yards in three straight games.
“It’s awesome. It never gets old,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said of watching a back who most observers presume will enter the NFL draft after this season. “He’s special.”
And yet there’s a flaw in Taylor’s game, too, one he hoped he had conquered for good a year ago. Taylor fumbled eight times during his freshman season and four more times last year, losing each of them. The problem has flared up anew late this season, too. His fourth-quarter fumble on the Illinois 19 played a major role in the Illini’s upset of the Badgers in October, and though Taylor gained 426 yards the past two weeks, he also lost three fumbles.
Maybe that gives the Gophers some hope. Or maybe they just need to focus on the fundamentals, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck mused.
“It comes down to tackling. You can be in your gap, [but] if you try to tackle Jonathan Taylor, he can drag you for 15 yards,” Fleck said. “He’s so patient. He has incredible vision. He will make cuts at the last second, when it’s very tough for you go be able to change direction and get a true hit on him.”