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Penn State defense faces a big challenge in Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor

The Badgers running back, who starred at Salem High School, leads the nation in rushing with 1,363 yards. The Nittany Lions gave up a season high 259 rushing yards last week to Michigan.

Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor runs for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Rutgers Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Madison, Wis.
Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor runs for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Rutgers Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Madison, Wis.Read moreMORRY GASH / AP

Sean Spencer likes everything about Wisconsin's rushing attack, a back like Jonathan Taylor who combines power and speed, plus an experienced offensive line that provides holes and creases for him to run through.

Unfortunately, Spencer coaches the defensive linemen for Penn State, the guys who will be entrusted to find a way to contain Taylor and the rest of the Badgers when they visit Beaver Stadium on Saturday.

"It's going to be a tremendous challenge for us," Spencer said Thursday in a conference call with reporters.

The numbers bear that out. Taylor leads the nation in rushing with 1,363 yards, and averages 23 carries per game and 6.6 yards per carry. He may be asked to do even more work this week because starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook remains questionable after suffering a head injury last Saturday.

On the flip side, the Nittany Lions are allowing 179 rushing yards per game on defense after Michigan plowed through them for 259 yards, the most given up by the Lions all season. The Wolverines' Karan Higdon, the Big Ten's No. 2 rusher behind Taylor, picked up 132 yards last week.

"We've just got to have some consistency in what we're doing," Spencer said. "We're there. We're at the point of attack but we've got to come up big and make those plays. Our consistency must get better."

Taylor graduated from Salem High School, where he was named South Jersey boys' athlete of the year as a senior by The Inquirer. He rushed for 2,815 yards, breaking the South Jersey single-season record held by Corey Clement, a Wisconsin alum now playing for the Eagles.

Spencer said he looks to something else in Taylor's background — a track career that saw him win two state high school championships in the 100 meters, where his best time was 10.49 seconds.

"I don't think a lot of people know that," he said. "He's big and plays low to the ground, and also has the breakaway speed. I think he's a pro running back. He runs with his pads rolled over. He can find the holes. I know they have big O-linemen, but he's making people miss at the second level. I really like that kid."

Penn State middle linebacker Jan Johnson said Taylor benefits from his strength.

"He's a physical back," Johnson said. "He likes to get north-south, not afraid to lower his shoulder and try to run you over. He also has that top-end speed where if he gets through the second level, he's able to take off."

The Badgers' offensive line has combined for 176 career starts entering Saturday. Three members of the unit — tackle Cole Van Lanen, guard Beau Benzschawel, and center Tyler Biadasz — were named to the midseason All-Big Ten team by Pro Football Focus.

"I've always had a great deal of respect for the way they coach that front," Spencer said. "Historically, they've been one of the best offensive lines in the country year in and year out, and I think this group is just as good as any O-line that they have had."

Hamler a finalist

Penn State wide receiver K.J. Hamler has been named one of five finalists for the Paul Hornung Award honoring the most versatile player in college football. Hamler, a redshirt freshman, averages 18.5 yards per reception on 28 catches and has returned 18 kickoffs for a 26.9-yard average.