Melvin Gordon set an FSB record 408 yards rushing on just 25 carries—in just three quarters of play—in Wisconsin’s 59-24 destruction of Nebraska on Saturday, putting the Badgers in the “driver’s seat” for a spot in the Big Ten championship game. Gordon—who rushed for 140 yards on just 16 carries in the season opener against LSU, when Wisconsin blew a 24-7 third quarter lead—has been one of the most elusive backs that no one knows about, or at least not until recently. After his performance against the Cornhuskers, Gordon—who already led the FSB in rushing yards going in—now has 1909 yards on 223 carries through 10 games, an 8.6 yards-per-carry average. With at least two games remaining in the Big Ten regular season and a possible berth in the Big Ten championship game. Gordon should easily break Ron Dayne’s conference season record of 2,109 yards.
This kind of play did not appear out of the blue. In 2012 playing behind Montee Ball and James White, Gordon gained 621 yards on 62 carries—an average of 10 yards-per-game. In 2013, again sharing the load with White, Gordon rushed for 1609 yards on just 206 carries, for an FSB-leading 7.8 yards-per-attempt average. His current career average is 8.3 yards-per-carry. It is numbers like this for a team in a power conference that finally has observers talking a possible Heisman Trophy win.'
People will say that Gordon is no different from other Badger running backs of the past, who put up impressive numbers, but did little in the NFL. Ron Dayne still holds the FSB record for career rushing yards and is a Heisman Trophy winner, but only on rare occasions—mostly during his brief stint with Denver after being dumped by the New York Giants—did he show anything approaching capable productivity on the NFL level. Dayne was seen as a “patient” runner—meaning he “waited” to see where holes would open. But while this might have been an effective strategy behind Wisconsin’s big lineman, in the NFL, where speed and thinking “on the fly” was paramount, Dayne simply did not cut it; rather than “patient,” he just seemed slow.
Ball is the FSB record holder for career touchdowns, but his career with Denver has also been a letdown. He got his chance this season to start, but an early season injury, a meager 3.1 yards-per-rush average and Ronnie Hillman’s effective play (relative to Ball’s) seems to indicate that Ball may not be long for the NFL, or linger for a few years as a backup.
There are others who suggest that Gordon has the skills that past Wisconsin running backs lacked, and whose failings were less apparent running behind some of the best offensive lines in college. His former coach who recruited him, Bret Bielema, called Gordon a “freak” of a player with “great speed,” “athletic and powerful” and will “test out of this world” at the draft combines. Others speak of his “explosive shiftiness,” his “fantastic acceleration” and his ability to run through tackles and the smallest gap. Gordon’s one possible hiccup is his lack of pass receptions, but the Badgers have historically seldom used their running backs as passing threats.
With a record-breaking performance against a top-tier team, Gordon seems a good bet to win the Heisman, especially if he eclipses the Big Ten season rushing record, which could happen next week against Iowa. From there, Gordon’s superior skills should make him a “safer” bet to succeed than previous Badger running backs.