MADISON — Wisconsin got off to a slow start, but the No. 5 Badgers (2-0) ramped things up in the second half to beat New Mexico (1-1) 45-14 on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
Here’s what we saw:
1) Almost a year to the day since his first 200-yard game, Jonathan Taylor was at it again on Saturday, ripping off a career-high 253 yards against New Mexico. And just like 364 days earlier, Taylor’s postgame interview took place at a podium normally reserved solely for coach Paul Chryst. In fact, since 2013 only two players — Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement — have generated enough interest to get the podium treatment. Taylor got there by becoming the first Wisconsin back to run for at least 250 yards since Gordon in the 2015 Outback Bowl.
But unlike the excitement around Taylor’s first 200-yard game a year ago, most of the initial questions from the media revolved around his struggles with ball security.
For a second time this year, and a 10th time in 16 career games, Taylor fumbled. This one hurt a little bit more as the Badgers were in position to take the lead when the ball came squirting loose inside the New Mexico 5-yard line. The Lobos recovered, giving Taylor eight lost fumbles in 350 career carries. In comparison, former Wisconsin running back Montee Ball had two lost fumbles in 924 touches.
Chryst and Taylor said all the right things afterwards, and there is no doubt that the sophomore bounced back, rushing for 203 yards after the mistake. But this is a problem that was supposed to be solved. Taylor spent time in the offseason working on it, and yet, against two of the weaker teams Wisconsin will see this year, he’s put it on the ground twice.
Saturday it didn’t matter and Taylor more than made up for it. But to think that will be the case later in the year would be foolish. Taylor has to get that under control.
2) Quintez Cephus was at Camp Randall Stadium prior to Saturday’s game, but he wasn’t suited up with the rest of the Badgers. And it’s unclear when, or if, the junior wide receiver will take the field with Wisconsin again. He’s currently facing two sexual assault charges in Dane County, including one that would land him in prison for up to 25 years if convicted.
He took a leave of absence from the team on Aug. 18 and was officially suspended two days later when the charges were filed. In the weeks since, Wisconsin players have been asked about Cephus and have largely avoided answering other than to say they support him. Wide receiver Kendric Pryor, though, is showing his support in another way.
In each of the first two games, Pryor has written “Bigg Dogg” on his wrist tape. It’s the nickname everyone used for Cephus’ dad, Andre Taylor, who was shot and killed in April 2017. Taylor always referred to his son as “Bigg Dogg” and it’s what the players have taken to calling him as well. So when Pryor scored a touchdown in the opener against Western Kentucky, he pointed to his wrist and it was caught by a photographer. Pryor posted it to his Instagram page and tagged Cephus in it.
“I know he really wants to be out here,” Pryor said Saturday when asked about his reasoning for the gesture. “I really wanted to show that’s my brother [and] I’m going to support him.”
While suspended, Cephus can’t practice or play, but is still able to use the support services Wisconsin provides to its athletes. He’s due in court for his preliminary hearing on Tuesday.
3) There was a debate after the game…who actually tackled Scott Nelson following his first career interception? Was it one of the New Mexico offensive linemen or did Nelson take himself out?
“It was one of the linemen. I didn’t just trip, I promise,” Nelson said with a smile. “I’d admit it if I did. We’ll definitely work on the return skills.”
Nelson figures to have plenty more opportunities in his career. The redshirt freshman has been around the ball constantly in the first two games and reads plays like a veteran. That included on the interception, where he helped out D’Cota Dixon, who appeared beaten on a double move in the slot. Nelson was able to read the quarterback’s eyes, the pass rush forced an early throw and then the safety made the play.
4) For some reason, AJ Taylor is always an afterthought when it comes to Wisconsin’s wide receivers. The talk this offseason was all about Cephus’ return, the brilliance of Danny Davis, the impressive fall camp Pryor put together or the huge upside of true freshman Aron Cruickshank. Through two games, though, it’s been Taylor that has stepped his game up in the absence of the other four. Whether it’s the suspensions of Cephus and Davis, the second half cramps that sidelined Pryor in Week 1 or Cruickshank’s role still being defined, Taylor has become Alex Hornibrook’s top target.
After five catches for 85 yards against Western Kentucky, Taylor had a career-high 134 yards on five receptions against New Mexico.
“He’s always been that guy we can depend on,” Hornibrook said. “It was a good job of him doing that (Saturday).”
Including the Orange Bowl last December, Taylor is averaging six catches for 108 yards over the last three games. While certainly acknowledging the absence of his other top targets, Hornibrook’s affinity for Taylor shows a clear confidence in him, even after a couple drops at the start of the season opener.
This breakout shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Taylor has consistently gotten better since arriving at Wisconsin after playing mostly running back in high school. Developing his skills as a wide receiver has been a arduous journey (“I couldn’t catch to save my life”) that required patience from his coaches and teammates, but all that work has certainly paid off early in the season.
5) This may not be going out on a limb, but we may not see Jack Coan at quarterback for quite some time. With an opportunity to get the backup some reps late in the fourth quarter, Chryst instead called on redshirt freshman Danny Vanden Boom to close things out.
“Jack’s had an opportunity to play and [I] thought this was a good opportunity for Danny to get some snaps,” Chryst said. “And it was.”
This was not a spur of the moment thing, though. Vanden Boom said after the game that he was told two weeks ago that he would be the guy coming in during garbage time. That knowledge suggests the hope is to keep Coan on the sideline this season unless Hornibrook gets hurt. Doing so would allow Coan to keep his redshirt thanks to an offseason rule change that allows players to see action in a many as four games and still redshirt.
Looking at the numbers
— Wisconsin ran for 417 yards, the most in Chryst’s 43 games as head coach. Overall, it’s the most by the Badgers since Nov. 15, 2014 against Nebraska. You’ll remember that Melvin Gordon ran for 408 by himself in that one.
— Taylor now has 12 runs of 30 or more yards in his 16-game career. In that same timespan, Wisconsin’s defense has allowed just three such runs, according to UW.
— Alec Ingold broke off a 39-yard run in the second quarter. It was the longest rush of his career and the second-longest by a Wisconsin fullback since 2004. Ingold also scored his 15th touchdown of his career and it left him averaging a score every 6.3 times he touches the ball.