Monday, July 6, 2020

Michigan State couldn't contain J.K. Dobbins; now enter Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor

October 9, 2019
Spartan football players stand for the national anthem before playing Ohio State. The Buckeyes defeated the Spartans, 34-10, at Ohio Stadium on October 5, 2019.
Spartan football players stand for the national anthem before playing Ohio State. The Buckeyes defeated the Spartans, 34-10, at Ohio Stadium on October 5, 2019. —
Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

It seems that every Tuesday evening reporters walk in the Michigan State indoor football facility to ask defensive players about the next "best" running back they have to face.

There was Western Michigan's LeVante Bellamy. Then Indiana's Stevie Scott III. Last week was Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins.

But this week's test, Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, may be better than all of them.

When the Spartans travel to Madison, Wisconsin this Saturday for their game against the eighth-ranked Badgers (3:30 p.m. ET, BTN), they know Taylor will have the ball in his hands 20 to 30 times. They know Taylor is the offensive catalyst that makes the Badgers as dominant as they are.

And if Michigan State wants to have a chance at winning, Taylor must be shut down.

“He’s a great running back," senior defensive end Kenny Willekes said Tuesday after practice. "They got a solid line up front. They play really well together, he runs well behind them. He’s got the whole package. Speed, vision, he runs hard and runs downhill, so we got to get ready for them.”

Wisconsin's rushing offense ranks 10th in the nation, averaging 254 yards per game on the ground. Most of that production comes from the legs of Taylor, whose 745 yards this season ranks third in all of college, while he is tied for second in the country with 12 touchdowns.

0:40 “Offensively, you know Jonathan Taylor is a guy that certainly is a Heisman-watch guy," Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio said during his weekly press conference. "Certainly, is an outstanding running back. Not sure is better, Dobbins or him. But both very, very good running backs.” 

The Spartans gave up the second-most rushing yards (323) in the Dantonio era last week in their 34-10 loss at Ohio State, second to only MSU's trip to Columbus in 2017 (335).

MSU's defense missed tackles all over the field at Ohio Stadium, which redshirt freshman cornerback Kalon Gervin said has been a focus going into Saturday.

"That’s just our whole big thing coming into this week is just tackling, leveraging the ball,” Gervin said. 

Dobbins did most of the damage, rushing for 172 yards on 24 carries — including a 67-yard back-breaking touchdown to put the Buckeyes up 24-10 right before halftime. Going from a talented running back like Dobbins to Taylor is a challenge in itself.

The numerous different ways that Wisconsin can throw its powerful rushing attack at defenses makes it even more complicated.

Dantonio said that with Ohio State, the Spartans knew what they were going to see: inside zones, which they got 20 times and outside zones, which they ran 18 times. A quarterback counter and truck play, which is a gap scheme play, was thrown in there as well. But the Badgers throw more formations at defenses to spring Taylor free.

"What you get from Wisconsin is a multitude of gap schemes where they are pulling linemen, sort of counter OT, both guard and tackle pulling," Dantonio said. "You'll get a truck play, with them going to the tight end. You'll get inside zone. You'll get lead iso, a lot more different formations and a lot more different running-type players from a variety of informations and personnel groupings. No huddle. It's a little bit more, I want to say, old school, but now it seems contemporary. There's variations of what they do and they do it very well.”

The Badgers are averaging 43.4 points per game, good for 11th in college football. It's not all because of Taylor, but he does have an affect in everything the Badgers try to do. His elite back skills forces defenses to stack the back with eight or more defenders.

Then, Wisconsin airs the ball out.

“They have got good wide receivers. They are efficient," Dantonio said. "Tight end is used a lot and very efficient, as well, and good pass-catching tight end. Good blocker, as well. Probably one of the best tight ends we've seen, I believe. Big offensive line, like I said, and the quarterback has been efficient. They are going to take their shots down the field.

"You know, they are going to run, run, run play-action on first down. You know, second down becomes a little bit more engaged on down and distance maybe, that type of thing. But they will run it, as well. But you know, they are an efficient football team offensively.” 

So, even though Taylor doesn't get the ball every play — his presence on the field is a game-changer. The Spartans know they can't give up 300 rushing yards again and have a chance to win.

But, Willekes thinks that isn't a concern anymore.

“It's not too much more complicated," Willekes said. "You know, read your keys, do your jobs. We’re going to watch film to prepare for them all week, so we’re going to be ready.” 

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