Bob Wojnowski, Tony Paul and Matt Charboneau preview the MSU-Northwestern and UM-Wisconsin games. The Detroit News
Ann Arbor – It says something when not only defensive players and coaches are gushing about the opposing running back, but the offensive coaches are, as well.
That’s the effect of Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, the Doak Walker Award winner last year as a sophomore and the FBS record-holder for most yards as freshman (1,977 in 2017) and as a sophomore (2,194 in 2018). And in the first two games of this season, not only has he had consecutive 100-yard rushing games, but Taylor has been more of a threat in the pass game, adding to his versatility. He has six catches and three touchdowns.
Michigan, ranked No. 11, opens Big Ten play as a slight underdog against No. 13 Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium, where Michigan failed to win the last four meetings. Both teams are 2-0, but the Badgers have yet to give up a point and outscored their first two opponents, 110-0. Both did not play last Saturday.
The Badgers’ offensive formula is quite simple – big, athletic offensive linemen for which they seem to have an endless supply year after year, and bruising backs.
“They have a system offensively. They know what they want to do,” Michigan offensive line coach Ed Warinner said this week. “They have a big offensive line, they have certain patterns they use, schemes. And they have a really good tailback – obviously, we know that. He’s one of the best in the country.
“They are committed to running the ball, so when that’s what you’re committed to doing, and you have offensive linemen that play hard and are big guys and a tailback with that skillset, you can run the ball.”
In Michigan’s 38-13 victory over Wisconsin last season at Michigan Stadium, Taylor had 101 yards on 17 carries. Two years ago in the Badgers’ 24-10 win at home, he had 19 carries for 132 yards.
Safety Josh Metellus said Taylor has a quality all his own among running backs.
“His ability to hit the field full stride,” Metellus said. “He sees the hole, he feels where everybody’s coming from. He hits it downhill. He doesn’t tiptoe throughout the hole. If he feels somebody coming, he’ll go full speed. He’ll attack you if you don’t attack him. That’s one thing that makes him different from everybody else.”
So how can a defense stop him?
“Get to the ball,” Metellus said. "All 11 have to get to the ball.”
Defensive tackle Donovan Jeter said the tackles have something to prove against the Badgers’ run game.
“If we get moved off the ball, there’s no chance that our linebackers have,” he said. “Our whole defense has got something to prove. You guys in the media have been killing us, so we definitely gotta do something.”
There is a sense of relief for the Wolverines’ defense, because they’re returning to face a more conventional offense after spending so much time preparing for their last opponent, Army, and the triple option. If they've got a chance to prove something, in their minds, this is that type of game.
“We’ll get to be in our base stuff a lot more often, stuff we’re more accustomed to,” Jeter said.
Carlo Kemp, a defensive tackle who said he had never been more exhausted than after the Army game, could not praise Taylor enough Monday night on the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show.
“You have to elevate your game because he is such a patient runner,” Kemp said. “He lets his O-line work for him and then uses them in very dynamic ways. He is going to make you play in your gap and be disciplined, because as soon as you leave your gap, he is a game-breaker. He makes one cut and he has done it his whole career. It is going to be a great challenge.”
Jeter joked that Taylor having more of a role in the pass game is “probably good for his draft stock.” But that’s more accurate than it is a joke. Taylor needs 592 yards to join Georgia’s Herschel Walker (5,596), Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne (5,091) and Oregon’s LaMichael James (5,082) as the only players to rush for more than 5,000 yards through their junior seasons.
“He’s one of the best in the country,” cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich said.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Taylor has no weaknesses.
“He’s really good,” Harbaugh said. “He can run all the assortment of runs. (He’s) an elusive back, power back, light on his feet and sees holes. Does everything well, blocks well. We are striving to kind of contain a back like that. Not a realistic thing that you can stop him. Hope to contain and get stops, get the ball back over to the offense.”
Michigan at Wisconsin
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin
Records: Both teams 2-0
Line: Wisconsin by 3