(19) Wisconsin 61, Penn State 57: Last Word

MADISON | N0. 19 Wisconsin overcame a slow start to take down Penn State 61-57 Saturday at the Kohl Center.

Player of the game: Brevin Pritzl

Penn State head coach Pat Chambers said Pritzl was the difference in the game. He certainly was, finishing with a team-high 17 points on 5-5 shooting. Pritzl knocked down four three-pointers. Ethan Happ called Pritzl one of the best shooters he’s ever seen. Only one other Badger (Kobe King) converted from beyond the arc. As a team, they finished 5-13 from downtown. If Pritzl can build on this game, he can be an ‘X’ factor in March.

The good: Second half

This makes sense because Wisconsin has made a living not going away early. Down seven at the break, the Badgers outscored the Nittany Lions 35-24 in the second-half. They did a great job taking care of the ball committing zero turnovers. Plus, they held Penn State to 24% from the field and 11.1% from three-point range. Happ took the lid off the basket scoring eight points on 3-4 shooting. He finished with 14 points on 6-14 from the field. Head coach Greg Gard talked about what he told his team at halftime.

“Good thing nobody recorded it, but yes, we needed to grow up a little bit. We needed to be tougher…we didn’t win the 50/50 plays in the first half.”

The not so good: Slow start

Wisconsin really struggled offensively in the first-half. They looked sluggish and couldn’t find any rhythm early on. Penn State looked stronger, faster and hungrier. They were the team that “came to play.” Happ mirrored his team’s struggles with an 0-6 start from the field.

Stat of the game: 26

The bench scored 26 of the 61 points. Kobe King stepped up in the first-half with seven points. He finished with a Big Ten season-high nine points. Wisconsin relied on King early to get them going. Then it was Pritzl who went off with 14 points in the second-half. He spoke about the importance of the second-unit.

“This is about depth now. We want to be able to keep it easy on the starters…It’s guys off the bench. We’ve got to provide the energy to a load off of them so that when it comes down to crunch time, they’re ready to perform.”

What they said:

Gard on getting to 20 wins

“To be able to get this team to 20 wins, and 12 in the league, it’s a testament to them. I’m proud of the work they’ve put in.”


In case you missed it:

*The Badgers picked up their 20th win of the season. They’ve now notched 20 or more wins in 15 of the last 17 seasons.

*Wisconsin has tallied at least 12 Big Ten wins in three of head coach Greg Gard’s first four seasons.

*UW recorded its 12th-consecutive win over Penn State, dating back to 2011.

*This is Wisconsin’s eighth Big Ten win of the season when trailing in the second half.

*Happ blocked one shot to pass Jared Berggren (144, 2009-13) for 2nd place on UW’s career blocks list, with 145.

*The Badgers can take over sole possession of fourth-place in the Big Ten with a Maryland loss to visiting Michigan on Sunday.

What’s next?

Wisconsin (20-9, 12-6) will host Iowa (21-7, 10-7) this Thursday.

Wisconsin adds tight end to 2019 class

The Wisconsin Badgers added commitment No. 8 to their 2019 class on Monday morning. Tight end Hayden Rucci made his pledge to the Badgers on Twitter before the sun was up.

The Lititz, Pa. native is currently the No. 11 tight end in the country and the No. 3 player in the state of Pennsylvania. He’s the No. 337 ranked recruit in the country according to 247 Sports.

Rucci’s commitment brings Wisconsin to eight recruits currently pledged to the Badgers in the 2019 class. He also becomes the fourth four-star recruit to commit to Wisconsin, joining offensive tackles Logan Brown and Joe Tippmann and quarterback Graham Mertz. The other four players currently committed to Wisconsin in the class of 2019 are rated as three-star recruits by 247 sports.

Wisconsin signed 19 players in the December early signing period for the 2018 class, with linebacker Jack Sanborn being the only four-star recruit. National signing day for 2018 is Wednesday, February 7. As of this writing Wisconsin does not have any more commitments expected to sign a National Letter of Intent.

Grading the Badgers: Defensive line

A great number of defensive minds believe that the way to build a defense in the game of football is with a strong defensive line. There are number of reasons for this theory, including generating a significant pass rush and freeing up linebackers to make tackles in space. Those are just two of the reasons as to why game-changing defensive ends are often drafted high in the NFL and rank among the highest-paid players in the game.

Wisconsin’s defensive line didn’t have the star power to create quite that much buzz across the country, but certainly did job required. The Badgers’ linebackers and secondary posted stellar seasons partly due to how good the defensive line was.

Wisconsin was able to get to the quarterback without having to bring more than four rushers in most cases. The lack of blitzing allowing there to be more of an emphasis on coverage down the field.

Alec James was the best defensive lineman for Wisconsin this season. He started all 13 games at defensive end and collected 7.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. While the sack total is impressive but not gaudy, it got the job done. James was named consensus second team All-Big Ten.

Opposite of James often times was Conor Sheehy. He also finished as an All-Big Ten player, being named to the second team by the coaches and the third team by the media. He didn’t quite have the production that James did. Sheehy finished with 1.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in 12 games played during the season. He was effective enough to get the job done, but again, not a star.

On the interior, Olive Sagapolu was named an honorable mention in the Big Ten for his play. He did miss three games but was productive when on the field. The nose tackle position typically isn’t a place where stats are expected to be accumulated, but rather success is measured by how well the linebackers behind are able to play. That obviously was something that went well for Wisconsin.

The line could have been better had Isaiahh Loudermilk been able to stay heathly. The 6-foot-7, 306-pound defensive lineman was productive in the limited opportunities he had on the field, but he missed seven of the games due to injury. In the five games he played in, he had a pair of sacks and nine total tackles.

Another player that would have been able to help out if not for injury was Chikwe Obasih. The defensive end had a good junior campaign, but was only able to get on the field for five games in 2017.

Grade: B+ | Injuries hurt this group in some aspect. They certainly could have been a deeper group, potentially leading to more production. That being said, the defensive line should necessarily be judged solely on what they did, but also what the other position groups were able to do as a result of their efforts.

Last Shots: Wisconsin 82, Chicago State 70

MADISON – The Wisconsin Badgers defeated Chicago State 82-70 at the Kohl Center on Wednesday night in their next-to-last non-conference game of the season.

Seventeen last shots for the 17 points scored by Wisconsin’s Khalil Iverson in a sloppy victory over Chicago State.

1. There are no such things as ‘bad wins’ in sports. Victories are hard to come by, no matter how easy they may look at times for some teams. That being said, Wisconsin would have preferred Wednesday night’s victory over Chicago State look a little better than it did.

2. The Cougars came into the Kohl Center as losers of their last nine games, with eight of them coming by double-digits. Chicago State had played four Power-5 opponents before Wednesday. They were 0-4 with the closest loss being 95-62 on the road against Iowa to open the season. More notably, Chicago State was trailing Northwestern 55-8 at half time of their December 11 matchup.

3. The best way to encapsulate Chicago State’s season so far is that they have not yet defeated an NCAA Division 1 team.

4. The betting line closed with Wisconsin as 30.5-point favorites. This was supposed to be an easy victory for the Badgers to gear up for the resumption of Big Ten play. It was anything but that.

5. Chicago State did struggle in the first half. In the first 20 minutes, it was evident that Wisconsin was more talented than the Cougars. They went to the locker rooms at halftime with Wisconsin holding a 41-24 lead. The Badgers did some things they were happy with and looked to be on their way to a blowout win. The second half was a different story.

6. “I thought we had until tonight,” said coach Greg Gard on whether or not his team had made progress defensively. “I thought there were areas that I referred to that we had taken steps forward in. Even in the first half I thought we did some good things. In the second half, for whatever reason, we were much more porous in terms of what we were trying to stop or attempting to stop, and gave them confidence early [in the half].”

7. After the break, the teams went back-and-forth for the first seven minutes of the half before Chicago State went on a 9-0 run to cut the lead down to single digits for the first time since the 9:43 mark of the first half.

8. While the Badgers were able to push their lead back to as many as 17, the game certainly didn’t leave Wisconsin satisfied, and it shouldn’t have.

9. Forward Ethan Happ was the leading scorer for Wisconsin. He had 18 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists on the night. The was a game where the Badgers needed everything they got from him. There certainly have been nights when Wisconsin has needed Happ’s best to either win or keep games close, but Chicago State wasn’t expected to be one of them.

10. There were times when Happ certainly struggled defensively against the Cougars. For much of the time he was matched up against Chicago State center Deionte Simmons. Simmons was the games’ leading scorer, finishing with 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting. He, like Happ, scored 10 of his points in the second half.

11. Guard Brad Davison had a tough night shooting on his way to 15 points. He was 3-of-10 from the floor, including 2-of-7 from behind the 3-point arc. He was 7-of-8 at the charity stripe on the night. Davison’s shooting wasn’t the main story of his night, however. More on that below.

12. Like previously stated, all wins count the same, but this one certainly could have looked better for Wisconsin.

13. Davison’s shoulder troubles continued in the first half against Chicago State. Ninety seconds into the game he was forced to leave and retreat to Wisconsin’s locker room after re-aggravating an injury he’s been battling since the team’s first road trip of the year. Davison spent roughly five minutes of real-time in the locker room before emerging to cheers and returning to the bench. Shortly after that he ran back into the tunnel and had the shoulder brace he wears re-adjusted. Davison then returned to the floor at the 14:49 mark in the first period. He quickly buried a 3-pointer on the next possession.

14. In the second half, Davison had to leave the game and retreat to the locker room once again with 5:14 remaining in regulation. He spent approximately two minutes of real-time getting checked out before emerging to the bench and heading to the scorers’ table. He checked back in with 4:38 left in the game.

15. While the 15 points scored show up in the box score next to Davison’s name for Wisconsin, the three trips to and from the locker room don’t. He was not made available for postgame comment.

16. Davison also did draw his 15th and 16th charges on the night. This is the second consecutive game in which he has had two charges drawn. He attempted to get a third call in the second half, however, just like the game against UW-Green Bay, he was whistled for a block on that try.

17. Wisconsin now has one final non-conference game left on the schedule. They play host to UMass-Lowell on Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center. Game time is 3pm. The River Hawks are currently 6-6 on the season, and have not yet squared off with a Power-5 opponent.

Grading the Badgers: Linebackers

During the 2017 season Wisconsin’s defense allowed only 92.6 yards per game. A big reason for that was the play of the linebackers.

The position group received contributions from numerous players this season. T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly, Garret Dooley, and Leon Jacobs were the leaders while Chris Orr and Andrew Van Ginkel all contributed when their numbers were called. Edwards, Dooley, Connelly, and Jacobs all received some type of All-Big Ten recognition, with Edwards being recognized as an All-American as well.

Connelly was the team leader in tackles with 80 in total, as well as 3.0 sacks. Edwards was behind him with 75 stops, 2.0 sacks, and also was tied for the team lead with four interceptions, including one of them returned for a touchdown. He added in seven passes defended as well.

Jacobs, Dooley, and Van Ginkel were behind those two in terms of tackles, but were able to find the quarterback more often. The trio combined for 15 sacks on the season, including a team high 6.0 from Dooley. Orr also was able to find the quarterback for sacks on three occasions, despite missing four games on the season.

All of the honors that this group received were well deserved. The 92.6 yards rushing per game allowed was the lowest among FBS schools in the country. Wisconsin allowed 3.0 yards per carry as well, which ranked tied for sixth.

Linebackers are often thought of as the leaders of the defense, and it’s hard to argue that with this group. The Badgers got fantastic play from this group all year, no matter which players were in.

The game against Ohio State is obviously the black eye on this group, as it was the entire defense. Even in that game, the linebackers made their fair share of plays, including Van Ginkel’s interception of J.T. Barrett returned for a touchdown. Van Ginkel also forced and recovered a fumble deep inside Ohio State territory that the Badgers turned into a field goal.

GRADE: A – This group was the biggest reason as to why Wisconsin had the best statistical defense in the country. Allowing under 100 yards per game rushing is something that doesn’t happen by accident. Edwards was more than deserving of his All-American honors and will likely be selected in next spring’s NFL Draft if he decides to forego his eligibility.

Wisconsin’s linebackers were arguably the best position group on the team in 2017, and are more than deserving of their ‘A’ grade.

Badgers 81, Phoenix 60: Last shots

MADISON – The Wisconsin Badgers won their second consecutive game on Saturday evening, defeating UW-Green Bay 81-60 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score.

Sixteen last shots for the 16 made free throws by Wisconsin on Saturday evening.

1. UW-Green Bay (5-8) was overmatched in this game. There is no other way of putting it. There were spurts in which they were able to look competitive, but their talent level was nowhere near that of Wisconsin (6-7).

2. Things could not have started out better for the Badgers. They opened up the game hitting their first 10 shots from the floor. That streak lasted the first 8:20 of the game for Wisconsin. The first miss came when a 3-pointer from Walt McGrory rimmed out.

3. The way UW-Green Bay was able to look competitive was with their pace. Coming in Wisconsin knew that the speed at which the Phoenix play was going to be an adjustment for them, and at times it was. More often than not the Phoenix are either shooting or ready to shoot half way through the shot clock. The ball is also typically past midcourt while there is still 27 or 28 seconds remaining on the shot clock.

4. The Phoenix actually were able to cut Wisconsin’s lead to 10 points at 29-19 with 7:17 left in the first half. The Badgers then exploded on a 13-0 run over the next 3:42 to push the score to 42-19. Wisconsin then went into the half with a 42-22 lead.

5. Brad Davison has now drawn 14 charges on the season. He took a pair against UW-Green Bay on Saturday. There were a few instances where he attempted to draw his third, but he was called for a pair of blocks instead.

6. He was the game’s high scorer with 18 points on the evening. Davison was 7-of-14 from the field, although he did struggle from behind the arc. He was 1-of-7 on 3-pointers. As a team, the Badgers finished 5-of-19 from deep.

7. Forward Ethan Happ continued to string together strong performances. He may not get as much credit nationally this year because of Wisconsin’s record, but he’s been consistent. Happ finished the night with 14 points, eight rebounds, and three assists. He was 7-of-9 from the floor against the Phoenix. Happ was only on the floor for 22 minutes, due to the fact that the game was a blowout. On the season, Happ is averaging 16.2 points per game, as well as 8.2 rebounds. He, along with Khalil Iverson, are the only two players to start all 13 games for Wisconsin this season.

8. This was the first game action for Wisconsin since the win over Western Kentucky on December 13. The 10-day lay-off was welcomed by the Badgers. It finally gave them an opportunity to focus on themselves rather than constantly be preparing for an opponent.

9. “We haven’t had a whole lot of time to practice,” Davison said. “We’ve had a tough schedule with games back-to-back. So, we had a lot of time to just hone in on all of our weaknesses and building our strengths. We spent a lot of time, whether it was individual skill work, or team defense, or just running through our offense, just trying to get everyone on the same page. It worked really well for us today. That’s our goal, just keep getting better every game, every practice, the results will take care of itself.”

10. The lay-off may have also given Davison’s shoulder a little bit of time to heal. He’s been dealing with that injury for a couple of weeks now. Davison does wear a brace while on the court that extends down nearly to his elbow on his left arm.

11. “A little bit, they might suggest it,” said Davison on if the coaching staff needs to remind him to be smart with his shoulder. “But, another thing is I don’t want to be thinking about it. When I go out there I just kind of forget about it, get it out of my mind. I just go out there and play the game that I love to play and the way I love to play it. I just try to forget about it and [the coaching staff] are all for that too.”

12. With Davison on the floor as often as he is, whether it be diving for loose balls or taking charges, there have to be moments where coach Gard and his staff collectively hold their breath.

13. “I feel it, I feel it throughout the game. There’s always different plays either where you land on [his shoulder] or it gets pulled. The brace is there to help support it, so I try not to think about it. I have no problem playing through the pain so I just love to be out there. I have two teammates who can’t play, so I’m just thankful for the opportunity to play.”

14. Davison is obviously speaking of guards Kobe King and D’Mitrik Trice who are both currently sidelined with injuries and haven’t played since Wisconsin’s loss to Temple on December 6.

15. Both King and Trice were in attendance in sweats Saturday. Each of them had surgery on December 11. King has been ruled out for the season with an injury to his left knee. Trice had an operation on his right foot and was slated to begin his rehabilitation process 2-3 weeks following surgery, per UW. If he is on schedule, his process would be starting as soon as Christmas Day. Trice was not wearing a walking boot or on crutches. The two were out on the court during halftime warm ups. King was interacting with teammates and Trice was chatting with one of the officials.

16. Wisconsin will be in action next on Wednesday for their second-to-last nonconference game of the season. They host Chicago State at 8pm. Chicago State is currently 2-13 and neither of their wins have come against an NCAA opponent.

Grading the Badgers: Defensive backs

As a whole, Wisconsin’s defense was one of the best in the entire country this season. The Badgers did a terrific job of limiting the big play, and often times bailed out the offense from untimely turnovers.

A large reason for the lack of big plays, at least, was the play of the defensive backfield this season.

Wisconsin had five defensive backs see the field on a regular basis and they did an outstanding job limiting the passing game of their opponents. The Badgers only allowed an average of 160.6 yards though the air per game. Opposing offenses also completed less than half of their passes against Wisconsin this season, coming in at 49.1%.

Nick Nelson was their best player in the secondary on the season. The draft-eligible corner hasn’t decided whether or not he will return to Madison next season, but he may have the brightest NFL future of this bunch.

The only downside to Nelson’s season was that he was unable to record an interception. Other than that, he did everything Wisconsin’s defensive staff could have hoped when they accepted him as a transfer from Hawaii.

Opposite of Nelson was Derrick Tindal at the other cornerback position. Tindal also had a strong season on the outside for Wisconsin. He brought a large amount of experience to this unit. The senior has played in 42 games in his career at Wisconsin. This season he was tested less due to Nelson’s emergence. He finished the year with nine passes defensed and an interception.

At safety, the Badgers saw three players see significant time. Natrell Jamerson started at one of the safety positions in all 13 games, while D’Cota Dixon and Joe Ferguson both played the other safety position.

Jamerson was playing safety for the first time as a Badger, having been at the nickel back position in 2016 and starting his career as a wide receiver. Jamerson brought consistency to that spot despite the lack of experience playing it. His production skyrocketed from the previous two seasons. Obviously, he spent more time on the field, and he took advantage of it.

Jamerson finished the season with 49 tackles, including 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. He also picked off a pair of passes, returning one of them for a touchdown in the Big Ten opener against Northwestern.

Dixon and Ferguson split time mainly due to the leg injury Dixon suffered. Dixon started eight of the games while Ferguson got the nod in the other five. Both of them were productive, although Dixon is certainly the more talented player.

Before the injury set in for Dixon he was one of the leading tacklers on the team. He finished the year with 52 tackles, including 1.5 sacks. Dixon played a role that many safeties aren’t asked to, where he was typically closer to the box making tackles. In most cases seeing the safety as a leading tackler is a bad thing, but that wasn’t the case for Wisconsin.

While Dixon was less than 100%, Ferguson saw much of the time in his absence. He was a much different type of player than Dixon. Ferguson wasn’t the same tackler as Dixon, finishing with 16 stops. However, he found himself around the ball much more. Ferguson intercepted four passes, returning one for a touchdown, and also recovered a pair of fumbles. Despite his limited time on the field when the Badgers were healthy he was the team leader in takeaways.

GRADE: A- : This secondary was very impressive for Wisconsin. Stopping the big play was something they did well in nearly every game, with the loss to Ohio State the exception. The Badgers allowed plays of more than 50 yards only three times during the regular season. Unfortunately for them, they allowed four such plays against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game, preventing them from receiving a higher grade. THat being said, the season as a whole was impressive. Next season they’ll certainly be missed with Jamerson, Ferguson, Tindal, and possibly Nelson moving on from Wisconsin. Dixon does have another year of eligibility and is expected to return.

Grading the Badgers: Quarterback

Quarterbacks are often measured by wins and losses of their team. Whether or not that’s an accurate way to judge that position is certainly up for debate. Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook certainly has piled up the victories in his time as a starter.

That being said, his record of 19-3 as a starter, albeit impressive, doesn’t necessarily portray him properly. Winning games at this level is difficult. Every program in the country would be to have a starting quarterback go 19-3 in his first 22 starts. Even though the wins haven’t always looked pretty, Hornibrook does deserve some credit for the victories.

Twelve straight wins to start the season had never happened for Wisconsin’s football program before this season. Hornibrook started all 12 of those games. While the Badgers were the more talented team in all 12 of the games, not all of the games won were because of Hornibrook. In fact, there were times this season when Wisconsin was able to win despite sub-par play at the quarterback position.

Hornibrook started the season strong in nonconference play. He threw eight touchdowns against a single interception in the games against Utah State, Florida Atlantic, and BYU. The game against BYU was especially impressive, as he finished 18-for-19 passing for 256 yards and four touchdowns. The sole incompletion that day was a pass that certainly could have been caught, too.

Once conference play started, things became more difficult through the air for Hornibrook. He threw an interception in each Big Ten game except for the regular season finale against Minnesota. Three times during the regular season he had games with multiple interceptions, and he tossed a pair of picks in the Big Ten Championship, as well.

Things weren’t all bad for Hornibrook, despite the turnover issues he had plenty of strong performances and timely throws. Those typically came after a mistake, too. Hornibrook’s best quality this season may have been his ability to bounce back after making a mistake. One instance of this that stands out is the second half of the Michigan game.

Hornibrook threw a pass that was intercepted by Michigan linebacker Devin Bush inside Wisconsin territory. The Badgers defense was able to hold the Wolverines to a field goal before Hornibrook put together back-to-back touchdown drives.

The immediate response was arguably Hornibrook’s most impressive drive of the season. The Badgers faced third-and-13 where he found wide receiver A.J. Taylor for 51 yards down the left sideline. That drive culminated when Hornibrook found Taylor in the end zone from 24 yards out on third-and-14 through a tight window. That sequence might have been the best all season for Hornibrook.

GRADE: C+ | Hornibrook did several good things this year for Wisconsin. As previously stated, winning games in the Big Ten is a challenge. To go unbeaten in the regular season, including a nine-game conference slate is a rarity these days. Hornibrook deserves credit for helping the Badgers navigate that path. Moving forward, Hornibrook can certainly improve. He needs to do a better job limiting turnovers for Wisconsin to reach their ceiling as an offense.

Grading the Badgers: Offensive line and tight ends

The key to any good offense starts up front with the offensive line and Wisconsin had a very good one in the 2017 season. Three Badgers offensive lineman were recognized as All-Americans for the season with Michael Deiter, David Edwards, and Beau Benzschawel claiming a place on one of the various teams.

In the last 10 seasons, Wisconsin has had 14 offensive linemen recognized as All-American. The offensive identity of the team is always to have a good rushing attack. Wisconsin certainly fulfilled that this season as the Badgers were able to run for 229.5 yards per game, good enough for 21st nationally.

While Deiter, Edwards, and Benzschawel were all deserving of the national recognition that they received, it’s also worth noting that center Tyler Biadasz was also recognized as a consensus All-Big Ten third team member for his season.

While it’s tough for the common person to be able to break down individual offensive line play, it’s easy to tell that the offense typically will only go as far as the men up front take it. Wisconsin was able average over 30 points per game this season which certainly wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of this outstanding offensive line.

To simplify things even more, running back Jonathan Taylor would not be nearly as successful as he was without an offensive line this good.

The offensive line also provided what was arguably the most entertaining moment of the season when Deiter caught a lateral from quarterback Alex Hornibrook against Illinois and rumbled 4 yards into the end zone.

The tight end is often thought of as an extension of the offensive line in the type of offense that Wisconsin runs. The Badgers certainly utilized that position this season with Troy Fumagalli as the main threat. Fumagalli, like three of the offensive linemen, was named an All-American by several outlets for his season.

Despite missing two games due to a leg injury, he was the leading receiver for Wisconsin in 2017. He totaled 43 catches for 516 yards and reached the end zone four times. Fumagalli was Hornibrook’s security blanket throughout the season, often being found on third down for conversions or in the red zone.

Wisconsin also received contributions from Zander Neuville and Kyle Penniston throughout the year at the tight end spot. Those two primarily served more purpose as run-blockers, although they did combine for 16 catches for 137 yards and three touchdowns on the year.

GRADE: A – Simply put, offensive lines don’t get the amount of love that they deserve, but Wisconsin had one of the best in the country this season. The Badgers do not reach the heights offensively that they did this season without a really strong group up front.

Grading the Badgers: Running backs

Wisconsin’s template for success on the field has always been to play strong defense and run the ball effectively. The 2017 season may have been the height of that due to a number of different things, especially the group of running backs.

At the beginning of the season, many thought that running backs Chris James and Bradrick Shaw would shoulder the load of Wisconsin’s rushing attack. James followed coach Paul Chryst to Wisconsin from Pittsburgh and sat out the 2016 season due to NCAA rules. Shaw saw action in 11 games as a redshirt freshman and was productive. He rushed for 457 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Wisconsin looked to be in a good place at the running back position.

Then, Jonathan Taylor emerged onto the scene.

Taylor saw action in the season opening game against Utah State in a reserve role. He had 9 carries for a team-high 87 yards and a touchdown. He never looked back, starting the remaining 12 games and becoming one of the country’s most explosive running backs.

Taylor finished the season with 1,847 yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman. He was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the country’s top running back. Taylor also finished in sixth-place in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.

Taylor was able to set the record for the most times that a player was awarded the Big Ten Freshman of the Week. He was an 8-time recipient, eclipsing Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett’s previous record that was set in 2014. Taylor also won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week twice.

While the backfield primarily belonged to Taylor, both James and Shaw were able to contribute during the season, although both missed time due to injuries.

Shaw was the opening day starter, and he finished the year with 96 carries for 365 yards and scored three touchdowns. He missed two games due to a leg injury that ruled him out for the season.

James played in 7 games, racking up 217 yards on 39 carries on the season. He didn’t start, but did cross the 100-yard mark against Florida Atlantic early in the season.

Another back to step up to the plate was walk-on Garrett Groshek. The former high school quarterback transitioned to running back during his redshirt season in 2016. He then saw action in all 13 games during the 2017 season. While much of his time was spent on special teams, he did contribute in the backfield with 57 carries for 294 yards and reached the end zone twice.

Wisconsin also utilized senior Rachid Ibrahim in obvious passing situations. He, like James, transferred to Wisconsin from Pittsburgh where he played under Chryst in 2013-14. For Wisconsin, he did a terrific job of protecting quarterback Alex Hornibrook in passing situations. He played in 12 games, totaling 31 touches for 183 yards on the year.

Taylor was the star of the backfield and rightfully so. He was one of the best backs in the country all year long. It will certainly be interesting to see how he improves as he grows older and matures at Wisconsin. A full offseason in the strength and conditioning program at Wisconsin could elevate him to an even higher level.

GRADE: A – Taylor was historically good as a freshman. His only issue was putting the ball on the ground from time to time. With all the other good he did that’s something that can be looked past for the time being. The rest of the group did a good job when Taylor wasn’t in the game, but there’s no doubt who the star is.