Badgers back Jonathan Taylor among the nation’s best
The challenges from the Big Tens upper tier of running backs have come often for the Gophers.
Last week, it was Northwesterns Justin Jackson, who rushed for 166 yards.
Two weeks earlier, Michigans Karan Higdon carried for 200 yards and Chris Evans for 191.
In mid-October, Michigan States LJ Scott rolled to 194.
On Saturday in the regular-season finale at TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers will face possibly the best of them all, Wisconsin freshman Jonathan Taylor, who leads the Big Ten and ranks third nationally at 150.6 yards per game. Taylor, who operates behind a massive, mobile line, is the engine behind an offense that has fifth-ranked Wisconsin off to an 11-0 start, the best in school history, and deep in the race for a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Theyve got one of the best running backs in the country, and hes only a freshman, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. Their offensive line, theyre big, theyre strong, they move people at will.
Behind that line, Taylor has gotten better as the season has matured. His 152.4 yards per game in Big Ten play is more than 56 ahead of the next-closest back, Higdon.
That production has Taylor, a 5-11, 214-pounder from Salem, N.J., on the Heisman Trophy short list, but hes trying to not let that go to his head.
Toward the end of the season is when the accolades start coming around. Thats when people tend to get off track, Taylor said. But the end of the season is when youve got to be the most focused because thats when the games are the most vital.
For Wisconsin, Saturdays game is vital. If the Badgers, who are 17-point favorites, get past the Gophers, theyll have a Big Ten Championship Game matchup against Ohio State on Dec. 2. A slip-up against the Gophers in the game for Paul Bunyans Axe would end any playoff hopes.
Taylor said theres a video loop of previous Badgers-Gophers games playing at Wisconsins football facility, and it has him intrigued about his first Axe game. Just seeing those guys after the game sprint to the Axe and having so much excitement after the game, I cant wait, he said.
Tasked with the job of stopping Taylor and the Badgers offense, which averages 239.3 rushing yards and 35.2 points, is Gophers defensive coordinator Robb Smith. Disruption, he said, will be the key.
Weve got to create penetration at the line of scrimmage, Smith said. Weve got to have our eyes in the right place, and its going to take 11 guys getting to the football and tackling.
Added Gophers linebacker Jonathan Celestin, We have to play downhill and get in the backfield as much as possible. As long as we play downhill and disrupt their [pulling linemen], we can be successful.
Receiver changes, depth issues
The Gophers added senior Eric Carter and sophomore Matt Morse to the depth chart at wide receiver, with starter Clay Geary, a redshirt freshman from Lakeville South.
The 5-10 Geary, a walk-on, has yet to play this season and was a surprising addition to the depth chart.
Fleck said Carter has been dealing with a broken wrist while continuing to play.
Tyler Johnson, the teams leading receiver with 35 catches, is out for the season because of a broken left hand, and freshman Demetrius Douglas (11 catches) was shut down after the third game because of an undisclosed injury.
Redshirt freshman Phillip Howard (11 catches) is the only receiver available Saturday with more than five receptions this season.