MADISON — According to wide receiver A.J. Taylor, a message from the Wisconsin Badgers coaching staff during last week’s bye stood out. It included some characteristics that have become a hallmark of the program.
“The biggest thing the coaches were kind of feeding us was we need to get back to Wisconsin football,” Taylor said after Saturday’s win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers. “We need to get back to just competing harder and grinding and hitting and everything. Just getting back to Wisconsin football the way that it was originally played.”
According to running back Jonathan Taylor, some players, including himself, were maybe trying to do a little too much at times.
“Just sticking with the game plan, trusting with the coaches,” Taylor said. “They watched a ton of film, they put together a great plan. They’re smart coaches, and trusting it and everyone will have their shot to make a play. Then it’s up to you to execute and make that play.”
Wisconsin tallied 533 yards of offense against a sieve-like Nebraska defense during Saturday night’s 41–24 victory, churning out 370 yards on the ground that included the return of some explosive plays from its star running back.
Of those 370 rushing yards, Taylor gained 221 on 24 carries with three touchdowns. Taiwan Deal and Garrett Groshek both gained career highs on Saturday evening, gaining 74 and 73 yards, respectively, on a combined 19 carries.
“I feel like we all bring something different but at the same time, one thing we share is the excitement we get of watching each other,” Taylor said. “I feel like everyone brings something different, but Groshek makes a big play and then Taiwan goes in, that energy, he’s feeding off of that and it’s going to fuel Taiwan to make a big play. I feel like if we can get that consistently, we’ll be one of the best running back groups in the country.”
When asked what accumulating that many rushing yards—the team’s highest mark in a conference game since gaining 581 against, you guessed it, Nebraska in 2014—quarterback Alex Hornibrook praised his teammates.
“It means 370 rushing yards,” Hornibrook said. “It was a great job by the offensive line. It all starts with them, out-physical-ing our opponent. I think the backs did a great job as well in finding holes.”
It took a bit for the touchdown train to start rolling, however. The first three drives for Wisconsin showed potential while also chewing up the clock (over 14 minutes) but finished with 124 yards and two Rafael Gaglianone field goals to make it a 6–0 lead.
After Nebraska trimmed the deficit to a field goal, Wisconsin’s offense took off, driving down the field 64 yards in six plays that was capped off when Taylor lunged into the end zone for a three-yard touchdown (after replay reversed that he was down) for the Badgers to go up by 10.
Then after Wisconsin’s defense contained a Nebraska attack into a turnover on downs, the Badgers marched down the field on another 60-plus yard series. Hornibrook found emerging target, tight end Jake Ferguson for a 14-yard touchdown to go up 20–3 with 42 seconds left in the first half.
“Just a simple seam. In the huddle, [Hornibrook] said, ‘This is open, I’m probably going to hit you there,’ and I was like, ‘Alright, let’s do it,’” Ferguson said about the play. “He put it up there where I could get it. It was a good ball, and was one of the simple plays that we do. We run it quite a bit in practice, so just something we could perfect, and it came up in the game, so we ran it.”
Two weekends ago, Hornibrook completed 17 of 22 passes for 205 yards and three crucial touchdown passes. Against Nebraska on Saturday night, the passing attack was not relied upon as much, going for only 163 yards through the air on 13 of 24 attempts. That does not mean it was any less critical for Wisconsin to move the chains and put points on the board.
Wisconsin was 6-of-12 on third down, with four of those conversions coming through the air. With that, the relationship between Hornibrook and Ferguson continued to evolve as the two connected on four receptions for 47 yards and that touchdown. Three of Ferguson’s four catches came on third down, with two moving the chains for first downs.
“I think me and ‘Horni’ have developed a really good relationship so far,” Ferguson said. “He’s texting me all throughout the night. He actually texted me last night at like 12, which I’m usually in bed by like 10, and he texted me multiple times and was like, ‘Jake, Jake, wake up. We’re going to have a lot of these looks.’ So it’s nice to have that.”
Naturally, Hornibrook was asked about those late-night film break downs.
“He’s always talking about my texts,” Hornibrook said about Ferguson. “It’s good. He did a great job of winning the one-on-one situations. That’s something I can count on him to do, and he did a great job today of getting open.”
It became an offensive slugfest during the second half, but Wisconsin pounded out an even more effective rushing attack.
Wisconsin rushed for 129 yards on 26 carries in the first half (just about five yards per rush), but wore down Nebraska in the second half with 241 yards on 22 carries (almost 11 yards per attempt).
“That’s what they do,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said. “That’s what they’re built to do. That’s what we used to do when I played quarterback [at Nebraska]. Run it, run it, run it, and by the third quarter, the short runs start to pop and you earn a lot of possession.
“That’s their game plan. This whole game from the start was the type of game they wanted to be in.”
When asked if he sensed the offense was wearing down the Nebraska defense, Taylor said he felt a “vibe.”
“Missed tackles, guys hanging their heads, so it’s a vibe that you get, and what you do is you go in your huddle and you tell the guys, keep punching, keep rolling, and we’re going to get through this.”
Wisconsin’s first offensive series of the second half showcased a seven-play, 71-yard drive that ended with a 21-yard Taylor touchdown to put the lead back up to 17 points at 27–10. Five of those seven plays were runs that gained 34 yards.
After a fumble forced by outside linebacker Tyler Johnson was recovered by nose guard Olive Sagapolu, Wisconsin’s offense went back on the field and marched 59 yards to paydirt. Deal ended that series as he galloped 20 yards for his third touchdown of the season to give the Badgers a 24-point advantage.
Wisconsin’s last touchdown came on its most explosive play of the evening, an 88-yard touchdown run by Taylor off a jet sweep look utilizing true freshman Aron Cruickshank. With Cruickshank motioning all the way to the right side of the line of scrimmage off the fake, Taylor took the ball, and with the help of his offensive line, got to the second level of the defense.
After dodging a tackle, Taylor continued his sprint to the end zone with a stiff arm of another Nebraska defender and received some assistance from Cruickshank, who laid out a key block that helped ensure no one would catch his teammate.
“I kind of saw a flash to the right of me. It was Cruickshank with the great block, and once I had seen that, I knew no one was catching me from behind,” Taylor said. “It was a matter of fact of beating that guy in front of me.”
After the game, A.J. Taylor referenced a YouTube clip featuring another standout running back who made quite the impact in college as well as the NFL.
“We’ve been watching a video on Marshawn Lynch and what he said all week,” the wideout said, “and it just kind of kept coming to life. If we kept hitting them over and over and over again, some people can’t take that.”
Warning: The video contains brief profanity at 0:22.
Even with another strong performance against a Nebraska defense, several players n Wisconsin’s offense stressed that there was room for improvement.
A.J. Taylor believed the offense was taking positive steps, but there is more to improve on.
“I don’t think we’re at where we could or should be, but I think if we just keep working and keep doing what we’re doing, we will eventually be where we need to be,” Taylor said. “We have the potential, we’ve seen it, and now we just got to keep executing.”