Youth serving up big plays for No. 9 Wisconsin's offense
MADISON (AP) -- A youth movement is sweeping through the offense at No. 9 Wisconsin.
Freshmen and sophomores have emerged as difference-makers with speed and big-play capability, just in time for a critical night game this Saturday at Nebraska.
Freshman Jonathan Taylor leads the Big Ten with 129.5 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on the ground. Sophomore Quintez Cephus is tied for the team lead with three receiving scores. Two more receivers, sophomore A.J. Taylor and freshman Danny Davis, are off to promising starts in the passing game.
And that's not even counting quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who has shown more poise and accuracy in the early-going in his first full year as the starter.
They helped the Badgers (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) weather a conference opener against Northwestern in which they were without All American-candidate tight end Troy Fumagalli because of a left leg injury. The offense's other senior leader, receiver Jazz Peavy, fumbled on a catch on the first play from scrimmage.
After a sluggish first half, Wisconsin's offense broke out in the second half to beat the Wildcats, 33-24. A 61-yard pass from Hornibrook to Cephus to the Northwestern 11 on the Badgers' first drive of the third quarter provided the spark.
"You've got to be confident enough that when you're designing something up that everyone can handle their job," offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said about the Badgers' being better equipped to make big plays this season.
The youngsters have embraced the opportunity.
Taylor could be the latest star running back at Wisconsin. But the passing game has received just as an important a boost from Cephus, Davis and A.J. Taylor.
Cephus, a nice target with his 6-foot-1 frame, has shown good hands and the ability to make receptions in tight spots.
"It's (getting) opportunities. You never when they're going to come ... Just being ready at the moment and making the best of them," Cephus said.
Davis will always remember the Northwestern game for catching his first college touchdown pass, a 5-yarder in the third quarter that gave Wisconsin a two-score lead.
"Basically, you've just got to stay consistent as receivers," Davis said. "Keep making plays, do my job, do what (receivers coach Ted Gilmore) says. Just try to do that and see what happens."
Davis and Cephus already sound like they're emulating the no-frills interview style of offensive-minded head coach Paul Chryst.
But the offense has been anything but vanilla, despite being anchored as usual by the running game.
Counting Peavy, the Badgers have four receivers capable of making big plays. When Fumagalli is healthy, they can put three tight ends on the field with junior Zander Neuville and sophomore Kyle Penniston also options.
At running back, Wisconsin can turn to Bradrick Shaw between the tackles. Chris James, a junior transfer from Pittsburgh, seems to be settling into a role as a third-down back.
"I knew we had a lot of weapons in this offense," Peavy said. "This is what we've been working for and we've got it."
And that's accounting for the slow start from Peavy, who led Wisconsin wideouts with 43 catches for 635 yards and five touchdowns last season. He was also a threat as a runner on the jet sweep.
This year, Peavy has had just five catches for 55 yards, and three carries for seven yards. Rudolph said the opportunities will be there for Peavy, who remains an important part of the offense.
According to Davis, Peavy has been bracketed a couple times by defensive backs wary of the Badgers'senior receiver. That extra attention may be benefiting the younger wideouts.
"We're winning games, that's the biggest thing for me as long we're winning games and I'm on a winning team," Peavy said. "I'm trying to embrace every moment in my last year and have fun with it."