Buckeyes expect big test from speedy back

Joey Kaufman
In his 34 career games in college, Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) has been held to under 100 yards rushing only six times, including in his only game against Ohio State in the 2017 Big Ten championship game when he gained a career-low 41. [Andy Manis/The Associated Press]

Greg Mattison notices the speed.

Among all the attributes that have made Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor one of the more decorated rushers in college football and the reigning Doak Walker Award winner as the nation's top running back, it's his burst that was at the top of Mattison’s mind this week.

Mattison, Ohio State's defensive co-coordinator, reminded reporters that Taylor has track speed. While running in a state sectional track meet during his senior year at Salem High School in New Jersey in 2017, Taylor clocked a personal-best 10.49 seconds in the 100 meters.

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It’s not too difficult to spot a former sprinter on the football field.

“He may not look like that all the time,” Mattison said, “until you see him break and see somebody try to catch him.”

Mattison’s defense will have the unenviable task of slowing down Taylor on Saturday when the Buckeyes play Wisconsin at Ohio Stadium.

Two years ago, they fared well.

In the 2017 Big Ten championship game, the only time Taylor has faced Ohio State, he was limited to 41 rushing yards. It remains a career low, one of only six times in his 34 games at Wisconsin that he has been stopped from gaining at least 100 yards.

Largely, Taylor has run through defenses in the Big Ten and across the country.

At Illinois last week, he surpassed 5,000 career rushing yards, becoming one of only four players to reach that threshold before the end of their junior season. His company includes another Wisconsin running back, Ron Dayne, the all-time leading rusher in FBS. The Badgers have had a heralded lineage of running backs to follow Dayne over the past two decades, including Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon.

Taylor’s place in the group might be owed to his speed, a trait that gained the attention of others at Ohio State.

“A lot of guys that big don't have the agility he has,” said Buckeyes coach Ryan Day, referring to Taylor's 5-foot-11, 219-pound frame. “He has good agility. He can run away.”

In the first two months of this season, Taylor has shown off his quickness on some of his longer touchdown runs, reaching the end zone on dashes of 72 and 48 yards.

“Once he makes his decision, once he makes his cut, his acceleration looks good,” linebacker Tuf Borland said. “It’s what makes him a great back.”

Though speed was on the tip of Mattison’s tongue and was pointed out by other coaches and players, it wasn’t the only thing that will make Taylor a challenging running back to slow down, and the toughest test this season for Ohio State’s run defense.

“He runs extremely physical,” Mattison said. “To me, the thing that I’ve watched on him is he’s one of those guys that it looks like he’s stopped and all of a sudden, he comes out of the pile, which shows he has great balance.

"He’s just a great running back. You don’t get 2,000 yards rushing in the league we play in without being an outstanding back.”

Taylor, who had 2,194 rushing yards last season, will force the Buckeyes to be disciplined.

Borland said they need to stay within their gap when seeking to contain Taylor. If they end up out of position, it might allow Taylor to tear off some big runs.

Mattison was eager for improvement as the team began practices this week. In last week’s 52-3 win at Northwestern, the Buckeyes surrendered 157 rushing yards, the second-most they have allowed this season, including seven runs of at least 10 yards. Mattison said the performance was “not acceptable,” though he expected improvement this week even with Taylor on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.

“It was just small things all the way through that definitely will be corrected,” Mattison said. “It didn't have anything to do with personnel. It could have been the calls. It could have been me making the wrong calls, that kind of thing. That's something we will definitely correct, and they know that.”