Wisconsin Badgers running into matchup with BYU Cougars

By John Coon, The Sports Xchange   |   Sept. 12, 2017 at 11:17 PM
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PROVO, Utah -- Wisconsin has always built an identity around a strong power running offense. The Badgers may have found their next breakout star in the backfield.

Jonathan Taylor made his first career start at running back for Wisconsin in a 31-14 win over Florida Atlantic last Saturday. The true freshman got the call as sophomore Bradrick Shaw sat out with a right leg injury. He did not let his opportunity go to waste, totaling 223 yards and three touchdowns.

It will make things that much tougher for BYU's run defense when the No. 10 Badgers visit Provo for the first time on Saturday.

Wisconsin (2-0) already had a capable pair of runners in Shaw and Chris James. Taylor makes the Badgers even more dangerous.

"Potentially, he can give us some big plays that we haven't had a lot of, necessarily, in the running game," Badgers head coach Paul Chryst said. "He gives you also depth."

Taylor became only the fourth true freshman in school history to rush for 200 yards, joining Alan Ameche (1951), Ron Dayne (1996) and Zach Brown (2007). His three rushing touchdowns ended up being the most scored by a true freshman in a game since James White tallied four scores on the ground against Austin Peay in 2010.

After two games, Taylor is the Big Ten's leading rusher with 310 yards and four touchdowns on just 35 carries. Expectations are soaring for the freshman, but he's taking it all in stride.

"You know, I'm just out there having fun," Taylor said. "On the wall, as we're coming up from the tunnel it says, 'Have fun, play the game.' You have to be grateful that you're here, you're here having fun. But it is humbling to be mentioned with the things I'm doing. But I just have fun and play the game."

Wisconsin is trending upward on offense. The Badgers lead the Big Ten in total offense (521.0 yards per game) and first downs (54). They rank second behind Maryland in both rushing offense (295.5 ypg) and scoring offense (45.0 points per game).

It's a much different story for BYU.

The Cougars (1-2) have been declawed on offense through their first three games. An inability to extend drives or make big plays has resulted in an uncharacteristically inept attack from a school that once built its football brand on high-flying, high-scoring offenses.

BYU ranks 124th nationally in total offense (231.7 ypg) and scoring offense (11.0). The Cougars are 107th in passing offense (155.3 ypg) and 118th in rushing offense (76.3 ypg).

Against LSU, BYU did not cross midfield on any offensive possession.

The Cougars made some progress with a pair of touchdown drives against Utah, but they still punted six times and coughed up turnovers three times on 13 drives in a 19-13 loss to the Utes.

"We dug a hole early on in the game with turnovers and interceptions, and we put our defense in some bad situations," BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said. "I am not happy about it and I am going to fix it. We need to fix the problems we are having on offense. It is frustrating that we couldn't put together a drive to win the game."

More trouble may be ahead for the Cougars.

Junior quarterback Tanner Mangum injured his ankle on the final play of BYU's last drive against Utah. Mangum was seen wearing a walking boot around campus during the week, but Sitake and the other coaches have not discussed the extent of his injury or whether or not Mangum will play on Saturday.

Mangum has endured a turbulent season thus far, throwing for just 466 yards and two touchdowns while completing 54.4 percent of his passes.

If Mangum can't go, redshirt sophomore Beau Hoge -- son of former NFL running back Merrill Hoge -- will likely get the nod.

Regardless of who will be at quarterback, BYU will only move the ball if its running backs and receivers can step up and make more plays.

"We just have to catch the ball when the defense helps us out," freshman tight end Matt Bushman said. "We just have to keep executing and not rely on third down conversions every drive. We have to get some first downs. We have to make some big plays."

This is the third meeting between Wisconsin and BYU. The series is tied 1-1, with the Badgers beating the Cougars 27-17 in the most recent matchup in 2013.

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