Jonathan Taylor entering the red medical tent on the University of Wisconsin football team’s sideline late in the first quarter Saturday sent a wave of unease through a packed Camp Randall Stadium.
The ever-durable Taylor had just taken a handoff, waited for his blockers to attach to linebackers, bounced to the left side and bolted for a 72-yard touchdown to give the Badgers an early two-score lead.
The cramps that put Taylor in the tent, and kept him out for the second quarter of a 35-14 win over Michigan in the Big Ten opener, were surprising. Taylor hasn’t missed a game in his UW career, and rarely needs a break from being on the field.
An even bigger surprise? Taylor’s absence didn’t seem to matter.
Without their Heisman Trophy hopeful in the backfield, the Badgers scored twice on Michigan’s defense and opened up a 28-0 lead before halftime.
Taylor returned in the second half, gained 10 yards on his first carry and finished with another big stat line — 23 carries, 203 yards and two more touchdowns to bring his season total to 10 (seven rushing, three receiving). But the way his replacements, junior Garrett Groshek and freshman Nakia Watson, held down the fort and powered Wisconsin’s offense without him shows depth and versatility Wisconsin lacked last season.
“This isn’t real cutting edge, but we’re a better offense with ‘J.T.,’” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “And yet, I thought it was really good. I didn’t get any sense that we had to change anything, change the approach, the guys made plays when he wasn’t going.”
Taylor said he never feared his injury was worse than cramps. Muggy weather and a heavy workload of 12 carries in the first quarter contributed to it as well.
The Badgers went 15 plays and 80 yards for a score on the first series without Taylor, highlighted by a 20-yard screen to Groshek up the east sideline, and a 26-yard pass from quarterback Jack Coan to receiver Quintez Cephus to convert a fourth-and-3 from the Michigan 43.
Watson also carried the ball six times on the series, albeit for only 7 yards.
UW’s offense capitalized on good field position late in the half to score again without Taylor.
“’J.T.’ is obviously the best back in football, but the guys behind him are just as talented, they’re just waiting their turn,” junior left tackle Cole Van Lanen said. “Someone comes in, there’s no drop, and that shows in our drives.”
Groshek left the game in the second half with a right leg injury, but the lopsided score may have led UW to be cautious in getting him back on the field.
Badgers break out ‘Hippo’ package
When Chryst went for a fourth-and-1 from his own 34 on the first drive of the game, he did so with more than 2,600 pounds of man at work.
“It's a good defense and some of the things you do, you need to change the math a little bit,” Chryst said. “We slowly got to where we wanted to be, right? It worked.”
The “hippo” package, as UW calls it, featured seven offensive linemen — Van Lanen, Kayden Lyles, Tyler Biadasz, Josh Seltzner and Logan Bruss up front; Jason Erdmann and David Moorman in the backfield — and Cormac Sampson, a tight end/lineman, all on the field at the same time.
It converted the fourth-and-1 on the opening drive, and helped pave the way for short-yardage success throughout the day for UW. That personnel was on the field for a fourth-and-goal QB sneak by Coan at the half-yard line and Taylor’s first touchdown run of the day at the goal line.
“I think it just shows people what Wisconsin football’s all about — big guys who love football, would do anything for each other, who come out and just hit guys in the face,” Moorman said.
Van Lanen said the package, in part, was a necessity because of the injuries UW has at tight end, and is a vote of confidence from the coaches to the line.
“We’re saying, ‘We’re coming at you. We’ve got seven O-linemen coming at you. Try and stop it,’” he said.
Coan on the move
Coan flashed mobility in and out of the pocket against the Wolverines, taking just one sack against a solid pass rush.
He tucked the ball and ran for a 25-yard score with 57 seconds left before halftime to put UW up 28-0 and deal a big blow to any chances of Michigan resetting at halftime. It was his second rushing TD of the half, giving him his first two-touchdown rushing performance as a Badger.
He finished with 28 yards on seven carries.
“I’ve always told guys, I said this last year, that he was dual-threat,” Taylor said with a laugh. “You saw it today.”
Coan also was moving well on designed roll-outs and to avoid the rush in the pocket.
“I’m not really sure if it’s underrated or how it’s rated, but I definitely think it’s part of my game that I can utilize,” Coan said.
Adding another to the fold
Preston Zachman, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound linebacker from Catawissa, Penn., orally committed to the Badgers, per a Rivals.com report.
Zachman — who is labeled as an athlete by the recruiting service — was on campus Saturday for the game. He’s a two-star prospect according to Rivals, and a three-star per 247sports.com.
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