Although it is too early to know whether Wisconsin will have Jonathan Taylor available this week at Indiana, his teammates know what life is like without the playmaking freshman tailback.
It isn’t ideal, though it is survivable, at least against one of the lesser teams in the Big Ten.
“I think we have Garrett (Groshek), Rachid (Ibrahim) and Bradrick (Shaw),” UW left tackle Michael Deiter said after UW played without Taylor for the final 41-plus minutes in a 24-10 victory over host Illinois on Saturday. “I think those guys can do it.
“I didn’t see anyone disheartened because they didn’t see J.T. in there. If anything, you want to make sure you win the game for him and hope we can get him back.”
Taylor left the game with 11 minutes, 20 seconds left in the first half after being gang-tackled at the end of a 3-yard run. One defender had Taylor wrapped up around the left ankle and a second defender fell onto the back of Taylor, who was on his stomach at the end of the run.
It appeared Taylor was hobbled as he got up off the turf. He went to the UW sideline and did not return.
According to UW officials, Taylor suffered a left leg injury.
“We’ve got to overcome that,” UW coach Paul Chryst said when asked about the loss of Taylor. “I thought sometimes we did and other times we didn’t.”
Despite the uneven performance, UW (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) moved up one spot to No. 4 Sunday in the Amway coaches poll on Sunday.
Taylor entered the game leading the Big Ten in rushing at 158.9 yards per game. He had 11 of UW’s 16 rushing touchdowns and 1,112 of UW’s 1,798 rushing yards.
“He definitely makes some plays, even when things are tough to get the ball moving,” quarterback Alex Hornibrook said. “He will break a few tackles and get some first downs.”
UW’s offense wasn’t sharp early with Taylor in the lineup and had mixed success after he left the game for good.
Taylor was in the game for four series and UW scored once, a 1-yard run by reserve fullback Alec Ingold in the final minute of the first quarter to cap a 92-yard drive.
UW scored three times—two touchdowns and a field goal—on its next six possessions.
However, UW rushed 20 times for 103 yards with Taylor in the lineup. The freshman left with 73 yards on 12 carries, an average of 6.1 yards per carry.
The running game generated just 68 yards on 23 attempts—excluding the kneel-downs by Hornibrook—after Taylor left the game.
“It wasn’t always pretty, and there are certainly going to be some areas that we need to work at and improve upon,” Chryst said. “But I thought the guys kept playing. It was fun to see other guys have to step up.”
Groshek capped UW’s second scoring drive with a 2-yard run and finished with 51 yards on 12 carries. He broke two tackles on an 18-yard run in the final quarter to set up UW’s third touchdown and appeared to be more decisive than Shaw.
Shaw rushed 12 times for 40 yards, an average of 3.3 yards per carry. Ibrahim had one carry for 2 yards and two catches for 24 yards.
Illinois entered the game last in the Big Ten and 107th nationally against the run at 210.7 yards per game.
“They put a lot of guys in the box, which is what you expect,” Deiter said. “It was just a lot of bodies in there, and it’s stuff we’re going to see for the rest of the year.”
Indiana surrendered 174 rushing yards on 40 carries, 4.4 yards per carry, in a 42-39 loss to Maryland on Saturday.
The Hoosiers enter the week 10th in the Big Ten against the run (162.0 ypg.).
Yet UW could be without Taylor and Chris James, who has missed the last three games because of a left leg injury suffered at Nebraska.
Perhaps more troubling than the injuries is that the offense was out of sync early with Taylor in the lineup.
Right guard Beau Benzschawel was beaten to the inside on UW’s second offensive play, a 3-yard loss by Taylor. Deiter was beaten on the next play by end James Crawford, who hit Hornibrook as he tried to throw, forcing an incompletion.
“If you come into a game a little lax, you’re going to get exposed,” Deiter said. “We didn’t have a good series. That has got to wake you up. If something is going to wake you up, it’s got to be your own bad play.
“You want to start fast and be crisp from the start. But it’s not always going to be that way so you’ve got to step back and just keep fighting.”
Can UW carry that fight to Indiana without Taylor?