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Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor hoping to cement his legacy in the Rose Bowl game

For a third straight season, Jonathan Taylor eclipsed 1,900 rushing yards. For a third straight season, he improved his touchdown total, scoring 26 in all. For a third straight year, he was among college football’s top five players in all-purpose yards, serving as the workhorse for a Wisconsin team that, in his career, has won 31 games and two Big Ten West titles.

For a third straight season, Jonathan Taylor was arguably college football’s most dynamic non-quarterback.

Yet, for a third straight year, he was nowhere to be found during this month’s Heisman Trophy presentation in New York.

“Comparing his stats to some of the former running back Heisman winners,” said Tyler Biadasz, a burly-bearded Badgers offensive lineman who has been blocking for Taylor the last three seasons, “you wish he was there.”

Taylor, a 5-foot-11, 219-pound junior who was swarmed by reporters at Friday’s Rose Bowl media session, publicly hand waves any such self-pity.

The philosophy major is placatory in this way, appreciative of the honors he has received — two Doak Walker awards as the nation’s best running back, two first-team All-American selections, and more accolades than he can count — and unaffected by the moments he missed.

With or without a Heisman nomination, he is high-stepping toward an NFL future all the same.

“You look at the guys that were there” — Louisiana State quarterback Joe Burrow, Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts, and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and defensive end Chase Young — “they were consistent,” said Taylor, who will potentially be playing his final college game in Wednesday’s Rose Bowl. “They’ve been balling all year. I would have picked those guys to go. It’s a tough choice.”

Taylor is in Southern California this week, because — for a third straight year — not even his Herculean efforts could lift Wisconsin into the College Football Playoff. Despite his 1,909 rushing yards in 299 carries this season, the Badgers’ national-title hopes were dashed with a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.

Though Taylor remains noncommittal about his future, he is expected by many to declare for the NFL draft this offseason and potentially become an early-round pick.

As such, he could have sat out the Badgers’ bowl game, where they will face an Oregon team that ranks 10th in the nation in rushing defense. He could have followed a precedent set by many other highly-touted prospects.

Instead, he’s hoping to cement his collegiate legacy in Pasadena and leave a strong lasting impression if he does decide to turn pro.

“It’s always electric when you can make a big play in the Rose Bowl,” said Taylor, a New Jersey native who remembers watching running backs Reggie Bush and Christian McCaffrey star in past editions of the game.

“It’s huge,” he added with a smile. “They call it the ‘Granddaddy Of Them All’ for a reason.”

Taylor hasn’t lived in the shadows of the sport over the last three years, but he hasn’t shined under a direct spotlight either. His gaudy production — he had 1,977 rushing yards as a freshman and 2,194 as a sophomore — has almost been taken for granted.

He rarely leads highlight reels or headlines the national discussion. He’s well-known, yet somewhat underappreciated.

Those who have watched him in person, however, gush over skills the film doesn’t always show.

Said Biadasz, another potential high-round NFL draft pick also electing to play on Wednesday: “His vision is incredible. The fact that he can find slivers and super-tiny holes, it’s pretty crazy. And the second thing is how he can come off a tackle. The dude breaks how many damn tackles a game? … If you see him get to the second level and make a guy miss, good luck.”

Said Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph: “When he cuts, he cuts vertical. There’s not a lot of guys that do that. He gains yards going forward. He does a tremendous job being able to cut, and able to accelerate through the cut.”

Quarterback Jack Coan added: “You hand the ball off and you just see him make all these guys miss. You rarely see the first guy take him down. He finds open holes you don’t even see when you’re watching. He’s got everything you want in a running back.”

What will Taylor be weighing when making his final decision whether to declare for the draft?

“Things you want to do on the field, academically, health-wise, things you want to put on tape,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, going through each of those categories and making sure you make the proper decision.”

If he does leave, he hopes to go out with a bang on the Rose Bowl stage — and bring his third straight storybook season to a satisfying close.

“It can definitely help you,” he said. “Guys who sit out [bowl games], there was definitely a reason for it. It’s in their best interest. They sat down and went over everything and felt it was best for them. Everyone has their reasons.

“We earned the right to be here. Wanted to finish it out right.”

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