The Big Ten West picture got a little bit clearer on Saturday. And Wisconsin has Melvin Gordon to thank for that. The Badgers’ Heisman Trophy hopeful ran for an FBS single-game record 408 yards in three quarters as No. 20 Wisconsin took sole possession of first place in the division with a 59-24 win over No. 16 Nebraska.
Wisconsin overcame a couple of early Gordon fumbles -- and a 17-3 second-quarter deficit -- to rattle off 56 unanswered points, thanks to solid defensive play and Gordon’s historic afternoon. The junior had no trouble getting to the edge and consistently breaking big runs, including seven of 25 yards or more.
Gordon set a single-game program record, snapping a mark previously set by Ron Dayne (339), with his 68-yard scamper that set up a six-yard touchdown with 5:46 left in the third quarter. He then broke ex-TCU star LaDainian Tomlinson’s FBS record of 406 yards with his 26-yard score on the final play of the third.
The Division I single-game rushing record is 437 yards, set by Maurice Hicks of FCS North Carolina A&T in 2001. The all-divisions single-game mark is 465 yards, set by Cartel Brooks of Division III Heidelberg University last November.
Saturday’s spectacular outing gives Gordon 1,909 rushing yards on the season, to go along with 23 rushing touchdowns. He has 1,731 rushing yards in his past eight games alone. A lot of credit should go to Wisconsin's offensive line, which boasts a bunch of fundamentally sound players. But good blocking doesn’t solely account for Gordon’s ability to deliver big runs early and often all fall.
The Kenosha, Wis., native returned to school for his redshirt junior campaign to prove he could be a feature back at the next level. There’s little doubt he has accomplished that in 2014. Behind his heroics, Wisconsin improves to 8-2 overall and 5-1 in Big Ten play. Nebraska falls to 8-2 overall and 5-2 in the league.
“His care factor and his ability to prepare is unbelievable,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said of Gordon in SI’s Rising Stars video earlier this week. “But then he looks at what he deems that he doesn’t do well and makes [that] a priority to get better. That's what makes him a great one.”
Former Boston College back Andre Williams, who finished fourth in Heisman voting in 2013, led the FBS in rushing last year with 2,177 yards. Gordon seems sure to better that mark this fall: He has two regular-season games to go, in addition to a potential berth in the Big Ten championship and a bowl bid.
There is constant talk about Heisman moments, but Gordon had a Heisman-type performance. This effort, at this point in the season, in such a critical game for his team’s conference title hopes is sure to resonate with voters. Gordon is already shoe-in for the Heisman ceremony in New York in December. With a few more big games, he might just have a shot at hoisting the award.