Jonathan Taylor - Wisconsin vs. Florida Atlantic

Wisconsin Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor stiff arms Florida Atlantic Owls defensive back Zyon Gilbert (24) on a first-down run during the third quarter Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL

The game was only a dozen plays old when Jonathan Taylor, the freshman tailback from the University of Wisconsin who is rapidly making a name for himself in college football, took a handoff to the left side, cut to his right in the hole, ran through two arm tackles and turned on the jets to complete a 64-yard touchdown run.

Back near the line of scrimmage, his teammates stood and watched as Taylor streaked down the middle of the field to give ninth-ranked UW a 7-0 lead over Florida Atlantic Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

"That was awesome," UW quarterback Alex Hornibrook said. "The first run I saw him, I think he broke like four tackles at once. I was laughing on the field. It was crazy to see."

Right about now, everyone is laughing at UW's good fortune in finding a tailback who can make big plays and erase the team's mistakes with his unique combination of speed, power, balance and vision. In only his second game in a Badgers uniform, Taylor had a historic day Saturday, rushing for 223 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries in a 31-14 victory over Florida Atlantic that was way more difficult than it needed to be.

Taylor became only the fourth true freshman in UW history to rush for more than 200 yards in a game, joining Alan Ameche, Ron Dayne and Zach Brown. Brown never lived up to the promise he showed as a freshman in 2007, but Ameche and Dayne went on to become UW's only two Heisman Trophy winners.

No one is firing up any Heisman campaigns for the 5-foot-11, 214-pound Taylor just yet, but he has given UW's offense, largely devoid of big plays since Melvin Gordon took his talents to the NFL, a huge boost in its two victories to open the season.

"He certainly has talent and he's gotten himself off to a good start, but there's a long way to go," coach Paul Chryst said. "I think he potentially can give us some big plays that we haven't had a lot of necessarily in the running game."

Saturday, Taylor staked UW to a 14-0 lead with two dazzling touchdown runs, the 64-yarder and a 29-yarder on the next series were five Owls defenders had a shot at him, including one behind the line of scrimmage, and none of them could keep him out of the end zone.

Taylor's impact didn't end there. Filling in for injured starter Bradrick Shaw on a day where UW made just enough mistakes to keep Florida Atlantic in the game, the freshman from New Jersey was the difference. He averaged 8.6 yards per carry, including eight runs of 12 or more yards. In the opener a week earlier, Taylor broke off a 41-yard run and had a 13-yard touchdown run in UW's 59-10 victory over Utah State.

"I knew he was a playmaker, but to be able to do that as a freshman in week one and week two as well, it's definitely very impressive," wide receiver Jazz Peavy said. "He's bringing a lot of big plays."

UW needed every one of them. The Badgers gained 324 more yards than the Owls did Saturday but didn't feel comfortable until the middle of the fourth quarter. A blown coverage that resulted in a long touchdown pass, a Hornibrook interception that gave Florida Atlantic a short field, an inability to punch the ball in on three runs from inside the 2-yard line and a third-quarter fumble by Taylor conspired to keep the Owls within striking distance.

Taylor had a hand in two of those failures. He was carried the ball on all three plays from inside the 2 and couldn't reach the end zone, though that's certainly not all on him. He also allowed an Owls defender to rip the ball out of his hands as he struggled for extra yards at the end of a run.

The good news is, Taylor was undeterred by his failures. The next time UW got close to the goal line, he ran the ball in for a touchdown. Indeed, shortly after the fumble, he rushed for 49 yards on six carries and scored on a 4-yard run as UW drove 79 yards to put the game away.

"I think he's a special kid," offensive tackle Michael Deiter said. "With his effort alone, mixed in with his talent, he's going to be a really good running back. He had some adversity when he put the ball on the ground, but he battled back and made some plays for us after that."

Afterward, Taylor brushed aside any talk about his historic day.

"I'm just having fun out there," he said. "On the wall as we're coming up from the tunnel, it says, 'Have fun. Play the game.' You have to be grateful that you're here. You're here having fun. But it is humbling to be mentioned (among past greats) with the things I'm doing."

What he's doing is hard to ignore. Despite sharing the workload with Shaw and Chris James in the two games, Taylor has rushed for 310 yards and four touchdowns on 35 carries, a gaudy 8.9-yard average. But instead of talking about himself and his place in UW's history books, Taylor is more intent on getting back to work and learning from his mistakes, especially the fumble.

"Definitely wanted to come back stronger," he said. "When you're fighting for extra yards, it's important to keep two hands on the ball in traffic. Definitely made sure I had a good response to that."

That response left a lot of people laughing Saturday.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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