Jonathan Taylor won back-to-back 100-meter dash state titles at Salem High School in New Jersey, posting a personal record time of 10.49 seconds –– one of the fastest in state history.
What’s even scarier about the best running back Ohio State will face in at least the regular season: Speed isn’t his most notable attribute.
The 2018 Doak Walker Award winner and first team Associated Press All-American has made a habit of ferociously ripping, tearing and stiff-arming his way through the teeth of America’s best defenses to the tune of 5,128 career rushing yards in three seasons with Wisconsin –– already the No. 19 leading rusher in college football history.
And the speed doesn’t hurt either.
“I know this is going to be the biggest challenge of the year,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “It’s a major challenge for the guys up front, the front seven and the secondary. These guys are big, strong, physical. They’re going to try to move us off the ball. Obviously Taylor is as good as there is in the country.”
After chewing up 1,977 and 2,194 yards of turf in his freshman and sophomore seasons, respectively, the 220-pound back is on another jaw-dropping campaign for the Badgers in 2019.
His 957 yards and 136.7 per game are both No. 3 in the nation, and the two players ahead of him have each received at least 21 more carries on the year.
Taylor’s 19 total touchdowns are not only four more than the next closest player in the country, but they equal the amount of scores hauled in by the entire Ohio State wide receiver corps. His 15 rushing touchdowns are three more than the Buckeyes’ running back room combined, and he’s significantly outpacing himself from two prior seasons in which he had 13 and 16.
If his statistical rap sheet isn’t enough to strike fear in the heart of the Buckeye contingent, Taylor enters Columbus looking to avenge the worst performance of his lauded collegiate tenure, a career-low 41 yards on 2.7 per carry in a Big Ten Championship loss to Ohio State in 2017.
“When we saw him two years ago, in the Big Ten Championship, it was kind of a first- and second-down guy,” redshirt junior linebacker Tuf Borland said. “But now he’s better at his game in all aspects, all the way through third down, blocking, catching the ball out of the backfield –– so he’s a great player.”
Evidence of Taylor’s evolution is readily available in his use as a safety valve for junior quarterback Jack Coan in the improved Wisconsin passing attack this season. Taylor caught 16 passes combined in his first two years with the Badgers, a mark he has already equalled through seven games in 2019, and his four receiving scores are the most on the team.
Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said a team’s first instinct to stifle a power running front like Wisconsin’s is to stack the box, but with Taylor’s newfound pass-catching ability and a Big Ten-leading 76 percent completion rate from Coan, the answer to the puzzle will not be that simple.
Giving up the ninth-fewest rushing yards in the country at 92.7 per game, Ohio State has been elite at stopping the run. But against Northwestern, which averages just 3.6 yards per rush on the season, the Buckeyes were consistently gashed on the Wildcats’ second drive for 40 yards on the ground, including three carries for double-digit gains.
It may be a small sample size of success, but it made enough of an impact that Mattison said corrections need to be made before Ohio State takes on Taylor and a program that boasts three of the past eight NCAA rushing champions.
“We all know as a defense that we don’t want to give up yardage like that on the run,” Mattison said. “That’s not our deal. That’s not our backbone.”
Though hardly bottled up, Taylor’s 132 yards and a touchdown in this past week’s loss to Illinois, the team’s first of the season, proved that teams can have success against the Badgers even when their star back is productive.
Wisconsin’s upset loss, alongside Taylor’s career low two-game average of 3.9 yards per carry accrued in the past two weeks, may suggest the Big Ten battle has lost some luster. But in order to keep the season on track, Day and the Buckeyes will need to ensure Taylor isn’t out of the blocks and off to the races early and often Saturday.
“We’ll find out after Saturday, find out where we’re at with this thing,” Day said. “I think we’ve done a good job of defeating blocks, winning the line of scrimmage. This will be the ultimate test when you play Wisconsin.”