In parts of three seasons at Wisconsin, Jonathan Taylor has cemented himself among the many legendary running backs in program history. Saturday was just another day at the office for the perennial Heisman candidate, having his way against a strong defense in No. 13 Wisconsin’s (4-2 Big Ten, 7-2 overall) 24-22 victory over No. 18 Iowa (3-3 Big Ten, 6-3 overall) at Camp Randall Stadium.
Taylor had been held in check in back-to-back losses to Illinois and Ohio State, but he was in control from start to finish against the Hawkeyes. The junior ran for 250 yards on 31 carries, hitting the gaps with his signature explosiveness that was missing in late October.
“It was a good combination of [offensive linemen] and running backs being on the same page,” Taylor said postgame, crediting fellow ball carriers Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek in the victory. “We worked a lot these last two weeks on being...more patient, and allowing those guys to work up to their blocks. It was a great combination, we had a really good day on the ground.”
Trying to protect a two-point lead late in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin’s offense went into chew-clock mode needing just a few first downs to ice the game. Its execution, unlike during the crushing defeat to Illinois, was perfect. The eight-play, 62-yard drive killed over three minutes in time and put the Badgers in victory formation for the first time in four weeks.
Taylor ran for 125 yards in the fourth quarter alone, breaking loose 36 and 42-yard carries on subsequent drives to keep Wisconsin ahead on the scoreboard. Taylor noted the importance of each conference game, but didn’t allow the pressure to change his approach late.
“Only thing that changed is we’ve got to close the game,” Taylor said. “Two-point game, four minutes, you have to make sure that you’re on and moving those chains.”
And move the chains he did. Taylor’s carries accounted for five first downs in the final quarter, aided by an offensive line that won the battle up front all night long. Lineman Cole Van Lanen, who had his struggles against OSU edge rusher Chase Young, put together a much stronger day against NFL Draft prospect AJ Epenesa.
“This game every year is a gritty game,” Van Lanen said. “For us to be able to run like we were--getting those holes open--they’re trying to stop that, and that really opened up a lot of things in the pass game. I thought it was great that we were getting the receivers involved, getting Jack [Coan] involved.”
While the offense was definitely run-heavy, Coan moved the offense along smoothly with one of his stronger games of the season: 16/25, 173 yards, and two touchdowns. With the Badgers pinned at their own 14-yard line late in the third quarter, Coan hit wide receiver Quintez Cephus on two deep balls to operate a quick four-play, 86-yard touchdown drive.
“Anytime you can make some plays down the field in key moments...you want to take advantage of the opportunity,” Cephus said of his clutch grabs to put Wisconsin ahead by two touchdowns. “I had a go route down the field and I didn’t see anybody over the top of me and the cornerback. I knew if Jack [Coan] liked it he would take it...he put the ball in a good spot and we finished on it.”
Cephus had five grabs for 94 yards and a touchdown, but those weren’t the numbers that mattered most to him on Saturday.
“We’re receivers and we like to catch the ball, but we want to win the game,” Cephus said of Wisconsin’s run-heavy fourth quarter. “We wanted to put the ball back in Jonathan [Taylor’s] hands. With him being the best back in the country and our line being the best linemen in the country...and you’re up points, I like our chances.”
In every postgame press conference this season, Jonathan Taylor has exuded a selflessness that makes his teammates love him. He was asked, for once, to talk about himself and his thoughts on another classic 200+ yard performance. The best he could do was credit his teammates for success.
“The biggest thing I did was make sure that I’m at my best,” Taylor said. “I know [my teammates] will be at their best...You have to trust that everybody around you is going to be at their best so all I have to do is focus on my job.”