Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is rocketing to the top of the Heisman Trophy race, but Wisconsin freshman Jonathan Taylor might be the best running back in the Big Ten. Taylor will try to lead the undefeated, fifth-ranked Badgers to another win when they visit Illinois on Saturday.
Taylor became the fifth true freshman in FBS history to reach 1,000 yards rushing in seven games when he rumbled for 126 yards in a 38-13 win over Maryland last week, joining a list that includes Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson. “As a freshman, how hard he plays is impressive,” Badgers left tackle Michael Dieter told reporters of Taylor. “He is super talented and all that, but the work he puts in, that’s what makes him go. He breaks a lot of tackles and just outworks guys. With his talent and his work ethic, he could be one of the best backs in the country.” This week, Taylor will be going up against a Fighting Illini run defense surrendering an average of 210.7 yards, 108th out of 130 FBS teams. Illinois surrendered 292 yards on the ground in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota last week and is still looking for its first Big Ten win.
TV: Noon ET, ESPN. LINE: Wisconsin -26
ABOUT WISCONSIN (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten): The Badgers defense allowed only three touchdowns in the second half of games this season and enters the week sixth in FBS with an average of 265 yards allowed. That defense is helping to cover over some turnover woes from quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who threw six interceptions in the last four games and recorded only one 200-yard passing performance in that span. “Whenever we take the field, our mentality is the same -- just stop them,” linebacker Alec James told reporters. “No matter if it is off a turnover or anything -- it is the same every time. We just go out there and do our job no matter where the ball is or what the situation is.”
ABOUT ILLINOIS (2-5, 0-4): The Fighting Illini might have some reason to be optimistic despite being winless in the Big Ten thanks to the emergence of freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, who saw his first action last week. Thomas replaced an ineffective Jeff George Jr. and impressed with his legs, rushing for 79 yards on 10 carries while completing two of his four pass attempts. “Cam is a smart player and his preparation has always been there,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith told reporters. “Preparation for a freshman has been good, but there’s a lot he hasn’t seen. There’s a lot of situations he still needs to be in, but it’s that way with a lot of freshman.”
1. Wisconsin’s current streak of 10 straight Big Ten wins is the longest in school history.
2. Fighting Illini freshman WR Ricky Smalling caught a TD pass in each of the last two games.
3. The Badgers took the last seven and 11 of the last 12 in the series, including a 48-3 thumping at home last season.
PREDICTION: Wisconsin 45, Illinois 17