Jonathan Taylor’s Heisman Trophy chances slipped further from reality as the University of Wisconsin continued to fall down — and eventually out of — the national rankings.
From start to finish, however, there’s been very little doubt that the Badgers sophomore outperformed every other player at his position this season. Taylor won the Doak Walker Award, presented annually to the country’s best running back, Thursday night, becoming the fourth UW player to capture the honor and third in the last seven years.
“One thing I did see come out in him (this year) is kind of a little gear sometimes where he goes, ‘I’m going,’” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "I think now he does that kind of within the framework of what we’re trying to do. … But he knows when he puts his foot in the ground, I don’t think anybody’s going to stop him from going where he wants to go."
Taylor earned a spot as a finalist for the award last year when he rushed for an FBS freshman record 1,977 yards, although Stanford’s Bryce Love ultimately took home the trophy.
Taylor’s nation-leading 1,989 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns this season were enough to beat out Clemson’s Travis Etienne and Memphis’ Darrell Henderson. He joined Ron Dayne (1999), Montee Ball (2012) and Melvin Gordon (2014) as Doak Walker Award winners for the Badgers.
"It means everything," Taylor said on ESPN's telecast of The Home Depot College Football Awards. "The guys that have won it at my school, they're some of the best to ever run the ball."
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Taylor’s 3,966 career rushing yards are the most for any FBS player through his sophomore season, breaking Dayne’s record of 3,566. Heading into a Pinstripe Bowl matchup with Miami later this month, he’s just 230 shy of Gordon’s record for rushing yards in consecutive seasons.
He also became the fourth player in FBS history to record back-to-back 1,900-yard rushing seasons. His 165.8 rushing yards per game this year were nearly 20 more than any other player in the country, and he single-handedly out-rushed 64 of the FBS’s 130 teams.
“I think I’ve gotten better from last year, especially as far as patience and letting blocks develop,” Taylor said Nov. 20. "Sometimes I could be a little quick last year and just take off and not really let them develop. So I feel like I’ve slowed it down a bit this year and improved in that area."
The Salem, N.J., native remains fresh off one of the greatest performances by a running back in UW history. He piled up 321 yards in the Badgers’ triple-overtime victory at Purdue on Nov. 17 and scored the winning touchdown to end the third extra period. The yardage total marked the third-highest for a single game in program history, behind Gordon’s 408 against Nebraska in 2014 and Dayne’s 339 versus Hawaii in 1996.
One of the most talented offensive lines in the country helped make way for Taylor’s big season, as guards Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel and center Tyler Biadasz earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors. Taylor created plenty of extra yardage on his own, though, as his 1,175 yards after contact also led the nation, per Pro Football Focus.
“At the end of the day,” Benzschawel said, “it’s really him that makes all the big plays."