Football: Can Northwestern stop Jonathan Taylor for the second straight year?


Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

Jonathan Taylor goes after a loose ball during a 2018 game against Northwestern. The superstar running back is an early-season candidate for the Heisman trophy.

Jonah Dylan, Gameday Editor

If Pat Fitzgerald had a Heisman vote right now, he knows who it’d go to: Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor.

“JT’s a great player,” Fitzgerald said this week. “He’s been a great player since the minute he walked into this league, and he’s playing at as high of a level as any running back that I’ve seen in my time here.”

Stopping Taylor will be at the top of Northwestern’s priorities this weekend, as they head to Madison for a showdown with No. 8 Wisconsin (11 a.m. CT, ABC). It’s a problem almost no one has been able to solve, but the Wildcats did have rare success against the superstar running back in last season’s meeting in Evanston.

In that game, Taylor rushed for only 46 yards on 11 carries, the only time the entire season he finished with less than 100 yards on the ground. Defensive end Joe Gaziano said the team has watched film from last year’s game and can take a number of positives from the performance.

“We were just flying around and swarming the ball,” he said. “It wasn’t just one guy making the play, it was the mentality that everyone’s getting to the ball, and everyone can make a play.”

Taylor finished the 2018 season with 2,194 yards rushing to lead the country, just a season after he finished third as a true freshman. Now in his junior campaign, he’s averaging 7.6 yards per carry and rushed for 203 yards and two scores in last weekend’s demolition of ranked Michigan.

And Taylor isn’t the only scary part of Wisconsin’s offense. The Badgers have a reputation for dominant offensive lines, and this season is no different. Led by preseason All-American center Tyler Biadasz, Wisconsin’s front creates all kinds of problems for opposing defenses.

“It’s the Big Ten, so every game’s gonna be physical,” Gaziano said. “That’s the nature of the beast. Everyone’s tired, it’s Big Ten play, it’s the middle of the season, you don’t get a bye week until later in the season. You just kind of have to take punches and swing back. That’s the only way you can succeed in the Big Ten.”

The Cats (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) are coming off a game in which they took a lot of punches and didn’t exactly swing back, falling 31-10 at home to Michigan State on an afternoon where nothing seemed to go right. Now, they’ll open Big Ten West play against a Badger (3-0, 1-0) team firing on all cylinders, especially as quarterback Jack Coan continues to develop.

Last week, the question coming in was whether the NU offensive line could handle the Spartan defensive front. This week, the focus shifts to the other side of the ball, where the NU front needs to win at the point of attack to have any chance of pulling a major upset against the Badgers. Only one thing is for sure, junior linebacker Blake Gallagher said.

“It’s gonna be a heavyweight fight.”

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