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Film Room: Observing Wisconsin’s three-headed monster at running back

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Yes, the Badgers can still run the ball.

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern’s run defense has been shaky at times this season, a trend lost amongst the long string of injuries in the secondary. That doesn’t bode well for Saturday, where the Wildcats will be introduced to Jonathan Taylor and Chris James and reacquainted with Bradrick Shaw. With no disrespect to Shaun Wilson or Josh Cleveland, these are the three most talented running backs they will have seen in 2017.

In Week 1, Jaxson Kincaide and Kelton Moore combined for 126 yards on just 20 carries. In Durham, Mike Hankwitz’s defense let quarterback Daniel Jones rush for 108 yards and two touchdowns as the Blue Devils racked up 233 yards on the ground. Even in the convincing win over Bowling Green, Cleveland managed 54 yards on just 12 carries, including a 20-yard touchdown scamper.

Despite Alex Hornibrook’s well-documented improvement as a passer, Wisconsin remains a run-oriented team. For as well as they defend the run (90.7 yards per game), the Badgers are among the best at running the football, averaging 275.3 rushing yards per game. Featuring a trio of running backs, Paul Chryst’s team figures to run early and often on Saturday. It all starts with true freshman running back Jonathan Taylor.

Jonathan Taylor: 438 yards, 5 touchdowns, 8.3 YPC

Those gaudy numbers don’t tell tell the entire story of the rookie’s incredible start in Madison. A four-star recruit from Salem, N.J., Taylor galloped for 87 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries in Wisconsin’s season-opener against Utah State. His coming out party, however, was in the lead back role the following week against FAU. It didn’t take Taylor long to put the Badgers on the board - or to snag the No. 1 running back spot on Chryst’s depth chart.

The blocking by Wisconsin’s veteran offensive line is terrific, but Taylor also showcases vision beyond his years. The freshman seems destined to go between the “A” or “B” gap as he takes his first steps.

Instead, he is patient and waits for a hole to develop. Taylor’s vision and explosiveness, combined with a quick cut at the 39-yard line, the right tackle’s ability to seal the edge, the wide receivers’ willingness to block downfield and a poorly attempted arm-tackle create this 64-yard touchdown run.

His second touchdown of the day was just as impressive.

Four, maybe five, hapless Owl defenders get a hand on Taylor, who had no business getting positive yards on this play, much less a 29-yard touchdown run. Taylor is deceptively fast and, after eluding the blitzing defensive back in the backfield, he slows down before accelerating and beating four players to the sideline. This is a special run. One more run (below) shows why it’s so tough to tackle this guy behind the line of scrimmage. That’s a tremendous cut.

Okay, okay, we’ve seen the quickness and speed. We get it. But is Taylor strong?

The short answer is yes.

Taylor bounces to the outside where freshman defensive back Zyon Gilbert stands much too flat-footed. Taylor welcomes Gilbert to college football with a textbook stiff-arm, carrying two FAU defenders out of bounds after the 18-yard run.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the offensive line in Taylor’s 223 yard, three touchdown performance. On this run from the 29 yard line, only one FAU defensive lineman is remotely close to the line of scrimmage. Taylor hits the gaping hole and is first touched after a 20-yard gain, where he delivers a punishing hit to finish the run.

No. 23 is next in line to continue Wisconsin’s legacy of elite backs.

Chris James: 26 carries, 135 yards, 5.2 YPC

James, a transfer from Pitt, was expected to shoulder the load in the backfield with Shaw entering the season. Both made the Doak Walker Award watch list. However, Taylor’s emergence has relegated the duo to backup roles. James has made the most of it, though, rushing for 101 yards on 16 carries against FAU. Expected to be more of the third-down back, James ran over the Owls in Week 2.

Didn’t believe me?

Only a shoelace-grazing tackle keeps James out of the end zone.

Here’s another punishing run for good measure.

James might be third in line for carries behind Taylor and Shaw, but he’ll get his touches and make the most of them.

Bradrick Shaw: 103 yards, 1 touchdown, 4.7 YPC

Shaw began the season as Wisconsin’s No. 1 running back, shouldering the bulk of the carries against Utah State. He ran 18 times for 84 yards and a score, but was sidelined against FAU with an injury, paving the way for Taylor’s breakout game. Shaw’s used to sharing carries, however. As a sophomore, he was third in line last season behind Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale.

At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Shaw is the biggest of the three backs. With a downhill running style, he can be just as effective as Taylor and James.

It’s very, very difficult to take down Shaw when he gets a full head of steam.

Shaw goes nearly 15 yards before he’s touched by an Aggie. Side note, watch tight end Troy Fumagalli (No. 48) help out on the outside linebacker and then seal the run by taking out the defensive back.

When these teams met last year in Evanston, Shaw carried 11 times for 54 yards. Although he won’t be in the lead back role, we can expect to see plenty of No. 7 on Saturday, as he returned in Week 3 against BYU.

A few takeaways

  1. This rushing attack conjures memories of the 2010 Rose Bowl team. James White, John Clay and Montee Ball rushed for a total of 3,060 yards and 46 (yes, 46) touchdowns. The scary thing is this offense is more two-dimensional than it was in 2010.
  2. Northwestern lost 70-23 in Madison to that 2010 Rose Bowl team. Ball rushed for 178 yards and four touchdowns while White added 134 and a score. This game was on ABC as well. OK, I’m done with the painful memories.
  3. For as much as I praised Taylor, James and Shaw, the offensive line deserves nearly as much credit, although Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster will provide its toughest test of the season so far.
  4. Watch out for Jazz Peavy end arounds. But don’t worry about him catching any game-winners in the corner of the end zone.
  5. Wisconsin LOVES to send guys in motion. Although you can only see it in some of the videos, the majority of the runs either has a tight end (usually Fumagalli) in motion or a wide receiver (like Peavy) to fake the end around with while the run goes to the opposite side of the field. This isn’t anything new for a Paul Chryst offense, but consider it merely a reminder.
  6. The top three running backs in the Big Ten are, in order: Saquon Barkley, Akrum Wadley and Jonathan Taylor. Northwestern will see that trio in three of the next four weeks.