MADISON, Wis. — Jonathan Taylor's most important carry of the year may have come before Wisconsin took a regular-season snap.
The setting: a scrimmage in the second week of training camp. Taylor busted through what would become one of the nation's best defenses for a big play.
The Badgers' breakout star is 120 yards away from breaking the major college rushing record in a season for a freshman, set by Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson in 2004 (1,925 yards). The stage is set for the most important night yet of his young career, against Ohio State at the Big Ten title game on Saturday with a College Football Playoff berth likely on the line.
A productive outing and a win against the Buckeyes (10-2, No. 8 CFP) could also strengthen Taylor's postseason award resume and earn him a potential invite to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
"I feel as that it will be a big step, having a great game," Taylor said when asked about the possibility to be selected a Heisman finalist.
His top goal, though, is clear. A loss spoils an undefeated season for Wisconsin (12-0, No. 4 CFP) and overshadows hype about individual accolades.
"That doesn't really impact how I prepare," Taylor said. "I don't prepare for an award — I prepare for the team we're going to play."
It has been quite the rise to stardom for Taylor, the 5-11, 214-pound dynamo from Salem, New Jersey, who boasts a blend of power, agility, vision and breakaway speed.
He wasn't even on the two-deep chart to start the season. But he had already caught his teammates' attention by then.
"I've really never seen anyone break four or five tackles against our defense like that on that one particular play," tight end Troy Fumagalli said of Taylor's eye-opening carry during the training camp scrimmage.
An injury to starter Bradrick Shaw offered opportunities for Taylor in the season opener. Taylor has been entrenched as the starter since then.
Taylor leads the Big Ten averaging 150.5 yards per game and 7.0 yards per carry. He needed just seven games to reach 1,000 yards for the season, tying the FBS record for fewest games for a freshman to reach the plateau shared by five other players.
"Big, physical, run downhill, run straight at you," Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker said of the Badgers' run game. "They're going to tell you ... 'Are (you) going to stop it?' And you have to stop it."
Defensive end Sam Hubbard compared Taylor to Ohio State's own productive freshman tailback, J.K. Dobbins.
"He's got great vision, very strong, great speed and he finds gaps," Hubbard said about Taylor. "I think vision is what sets him apart. He finds gaps where there are none, and it's no surprise why he has so many yards."
Not to say that there aren't holes in Taylor's game.
Taylor fumbled at Minnesota last week . He fumbled twice three weeks ago against Iowa, losing one, but the Badgers still blew out the Hawkeyes 38-14 . He ended up with 157 yards on 29 carries against Iowa.
"I think he's fighting his tail off for yardage, and you can't lose sight of the simple things," offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said.
But coaches appreciate how Taylor bounces back from mistakes. Taylor says he's gotten better over the course of the season at being patient and letting blocks develop. To right guard Beau Benzchawel, Taylor has become more elusive as he gains more experience.
Taylor always seems to improve at something each week. Coach Paul Chyrst likes the way that his running back has handled the pressure as attention grows with each big gain.
"What's really amazing about him — I don't know how many areas have improved or not — but just the consistency," Rudolph said. "You put the ball on the ground, how do you bounce back? What's your reaction to it? Both of those things have been superior, the approach of an older player."