MADISON, Wis. — As Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor and other players see it, preparing for the Hawkeyes is like “looking at yourself in a sense.”
“It’s kind of weird looking at them,” Taylor said. “Because it’s like, hey, we do some of those same things.”
In Saturday’s case, that means a matchup between two of the best offensive and defensive lines in the Big Ten. ESPN’s Mel Kiper listed both Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and defensive end A.J. Epenesa as top 10 NFL prospects at their respective positions. Kiper also put Wisconsin center Tyler Biadasz as the top center in the upcoming draft class.
“You’ve got to be able to win the line of scrimmage,” Biadasz said. “That’s a great challenge for us this week.”
The battle at the line of scrimmage will put Taylor in the spotlight, which he embraces.
“It’s another opportunity for me to showcase what I bring to the team,” Taylor said. “It’s another opportunity for me to show that, ‘Hey, I’m here for you guys, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes.’”
When Wisconsin’s running game has been on top of its game, opponents have few answers. Taylor ran for 203 yards and two touchdowns against No. 11 Michigan in the Badgers’ 35-14 win. No other opponent has won by more than one possession against the Wolverines.
But Taylor and the Badgers’ offensive line will be looking to overcome a few recent hiccups in the ground game.
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Most recently, No. 3 Ohio State stifled Wisconsin’s rushing offense, holding Taylor to 51 rushing yards. It was just the second time in his career that Taylor rushed for less than 70 yards in a regular-season game.
“Are we going with Taylor too much? Are we not doing enough?” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. “You try to assess that. … There have been a couple games where we haven’t been able to consistently run the football.”
It doesn’t get any easier against the Hawkeyes, who have allowed the eighth-fewest rushing yards per game. Through the first eight games of 2019, Iowa has allowed two rushing touchdowns.
“When you’re playing guys with that level of talent, one slip in technique, and they’re right by you,” Taylor said. “They’re making the play.”
Taylor embraces the challenge of running against the Epenesa-led defensive line.
“Having that level of competition in front of you forces yourself in preparation to make sure that you’re as focused as ever,” Taylor said. “You know you have to be on your ‘A’ game because they’re going to be on theirs, as well.”
Taylor specifically remembers Iowa’s line being “really stout at holding their blocks.” Overcoming that starts with meticulous preparation.
“You have to make sure that you’re definitely using the right technique,” Taylor said. “You have to make sure that every single rep at practice, there’s not a rep where you take off a play from using your technique.”
But overcoming Iowa’s front goes beyond preparation. Taylor adjusts technique to account for the Hawkeyes’ quick defensive line, while also not making a decision too quickly for the offensive line to handle.
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“Whenever you see something — you see an opening — you have to make sure you hit it at 100 miles per hour,” Taylor said. “It might close up really quick, and you don’t know how many more opportunities you’ll have. When you see that one opportunity, you have to take advantage of it.”
October speed bumps aside, Wisconsin has at least one source of confidence ahead of the fight for the Heartland Trophy — the familiarity of playing a team with the same physicality they see in practice.
“We’re going against one of the top defenses in the nation,” Taylor said. “So you kind of don’t get shook at all because you understand, ‘Hey, I’m going against some of the best guys every single day.’”