MILWAUKEE (AP) Wisconsin freshman Jonathan Taylor is just getting started in the Big Ten. Northwestern senior Justin Jackson is on the verge of setting a career school rushing record.
Two important tailbacks at different ends of their respective college careers. The running game will be front and center when the 10th-ranked Badgers host the Wildcats on Saturday in the conference opener for both teams.
Not that this really breaks any new ground in the Big Ten.
”They’re tough and they’re physical. They try to match our intensity and physicality. They’ll come out and hit you. They’re not afraid,” Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli said. ”They play in this league just like we do.”
Taylor seized an opportunity created by an injury in the season opener to then-starter Bradrick Shaw. He may just never give back the job after averaging a league-best 146 yards a game for Wisconsin (3-0). Taylor was officially tabbed the starter this week on the Badgers’ depth chart.
”Patience is key. If you wait just a (second) something will show up. He’s not forcing anything. He’s waiting for things to develop,” left tackle Michael Deiter said.
As usual, Wisconsin likes to pound away at defenses with the running game. Northwestern (2-1) operates out of the spread, but Jackson has been equally as effective carrying the ball.
With 4,377 yards rushing in his career, Jackson is 108 shy of tying Damien Anderson’s program of 4,485.
”I think the minute he got on campus, he had that type of potential,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ”It’s from the get-go … he’s had a lot of special performances.”
Other notes and things to watch ahead of Saturday’s game at Camp Randall Stadium:
BACK AND FORTH: Wisconsin leads the overall series 58-35-5, but the matchup has been much closer in recent years. Two years ago, the Wildcats pulled out a 13-7 win in their last visit to Camp Randall Stadium when Badgers receiver Jazz Peavy’s 1-yard touchdown catch with 1:47 left was negated on review. Northwestern has won six of the past 11 meetings.
”It comes down to execution, comes down to not beating yourself and finding a way in the fourth quarter to win the game,” Fitzgerald said.
ON TARGET: Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook is coming off a terrific performance in the 40-6 win over BYU on Sept. 16, when he was 18 of 19 for a school-record 94.7 percent completion rate. The left-handed sophomore also set career highs of 256 yards and four touchdown passes. If Hornibrook can come close to this level of accuracy in Big Ten play, the Badgers could be nearly unstoppable given their success in the running game.
RUNNING WILD: A 49-7 rout of Bowling Green two weeks ago gave Northwestern a confidence boost after opening the season with a lackluster 1-1 start in nonconference play. With 678 yards on 74 plays, the team set a program record 9.2 yards per play.
Probably won’t be repeated at Wisconsin, which is seventh in the nation in total defense (248 yards) and has yet to allow a point in the second half.
BADGERING D: Wisconsin has yet to be really tested defensively in Jim Leonhard’s first season as coordinator. Imagine how good the Badgers might be if top linebacker Jack Cichy didn’t go down for the year in training camp with a knee injury.
One of the few quibbles with the defense is a couple communication breakdowns in the secondary that have led to long gains. The defensive backfield includes cornerback Nick Nelson, a first-year starter after transferring from Hawaii; and safety Natrell Jamerson, a former cornerback.
”I think we’ve made improvements in communication as far as just getting on the same page,” safety D’Cota Dixon said. ”A big area we can improve on is creating more turnovers and putting our offense in a better position.”
GOOD FOOTING: Northwestern is on good footing on special teams with punter Hunter Niswander, who ranks second nationally in punting average (49.5 yards) and set a career high against Bowling Green by averaging 51.5 yards a punt. This gives the Wildcats the ability to at least flip position on the road when the run into empty possessions.
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