On the day Wisconsin introduced Gary Andersen as its football coach last December, he was anything but vague about the type of offense he envisioned for the Badgers. “We will be a power-run team,” he told reporters. “I believe we'll be a football team that will be run-first, and our goal and our mindset and our want-to will be to wear you down as the game goes on, and to out-tough you and out-physical you.”
Andersen came from stints at Utah State and Utah, which both employed spread-option attacks behind mobile quarterbacks. But starting from day one, Andersen has nodded to the great Wisconsin teams of the past, for whom talented tailbacks defined the offenses in Madison.
Melvin Gordon remembers Andersen’s press-conference declaration well. Then a redshirt freshman, Gordon also recalls the coach addressing his new players that week for the first time, and assuring them that the status quo would not change. What had made the Badgers a dominant program was their power running game, and though the team was losing one of the most prolific rushers in NCAA history in departing senior Montee Ball, there would be no drastic change in philosophy. “He kept his word,” Gordon said of Andersen, “and things didn’t change.”
No one has benefited more from Andersen's commitment to tradition than Gordon. Gordon had limited carries behind Ball in 2011 and ‘12, but he has become a catalyst this fall, and Wisconsin’s ground game is as potent as any in the country. Through four weeks, the Badgers’ rushing attack ranks third nationally with an average of 349.8 yards per game. Along with senior James White and freshman Corey Clement, Gordon spearheads a run game that accounts for 63.9 percent of Wisconsin’s total offense and is a driving force behind the team’s 3-1 start.
Clement, Gordon and White all surpassed the 100-yard mark in both of the Badgers’ first two wins, against UMass and Tennessee Tech. All three backs have carried the ball at least 44 times, and none has fewer than 334 yards or a 7.2 yards-per-carry average. “It’s a good feeling,” Gordon said. “We worked pretty hard in fall camp and in workouts. Me and James will even get our group together and run stadium steps and do a little extra as a group. It’s a wonderful sight to see, but we just want to keep it going.”
Still, it’s been Gordon whose production has garnered early Heisman chatter. He leads the country with 624 rushing yards through four games, and his ability to keep plays alive has helped him maintain an 11.8 yards-per-carry average, tops in college football. That efficiency shouldn’t be surprising; Gordon averages 9.9 yards per carry for his career, the highest mark of any player with at least 100 carries in the BCS era.
Gordon’s durability dates back to his days at Bradford High in Kenosha, Wis., a two-hour drive east from Madison on I-94. Gordon started his prep career as a measly 5-foot-11, 125-pound back, according to former Bradford coach Jed Kennedy. “But he probably gained more than 60 or 70 pounds over the next two years, and he played his senior year at around 195 pounds,” said Kennedy, who now coaches at Edgewater High in Orlando. Yet even before Gordon, who now weighs 207 pounds, hit the weight room, Kennedy recognized the back’s natural talent. “When I first met Melvin, I told his dad, ‘He’s not going to have to pay for college,’” Kennedy said.
The Badgers saw shades of Gordon’s ability last season. After surpassing the 100-yard mark just once in his career -- a 112-yard outing against UTEP on Sept. 22, 2012 -- Gordon exploded in the Big Ten championship against Nebraska, gaining a career-high 216 yards and a touchdown on only nine carries. That game served as a de facto passing of the torch from Ball to Gordon.
Gordon’s almost never came to Wisconsin. He originally committed to Iowa during his senior year at Bradford, but a recruiting trip to Madison for the Badgers’ meeting with No. 1 Ohio State on Oct. 16, 2010, changed his mind. Thanks in part to two touchdowns from another star Wisconsin running back, John Clay, the then-No. 18 Badgers stunned the top-ranked Buckeyes 31-18 at Camp Randall Stadium. “I just fell in love with the atmosphere,” Gordon said. Coupled with the opportunity to be closer to his family, Gordon flipped his commitment to Wisconsin in December.
The Badgers continue to squeeze the most out of a player who was only the 24th-ranked running back in the class of 2010, according to Rivals.com. Thomas Hammock, Wisconsin's running backs and associate head coach, says that what separates Gordon from other runners is his ability to read defenses.
“He has a good understanding of how defenses are stopping him,” Hammock said, “and where we can get that one-on-one matchup.”
Speed is obviously a primary part of his game, but Gordon is also adept at making the most of what defenses give him. It’s a trait that has impressed Andersen, whose previous Utah State team was one of only four programs to boast a 1,500-yard rusher in each of the last two seasons.
“Melvin’s right up there with the best I’ve ever been around,” Andersen said. “What makes him so dynamic and special is, he’s developed some patience within the tackles, and he has great speed.
“He’s turned into a speed back and a power back, and that’s a pretty vicious combination.”
Gordon could potentially stay two more years in Madison, which would give him plenty of time to cement his status as the next great Wisconsin back. The Badgers’ matchup with No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday could go a long way toward building his legacy. The Buckeyes have allowed only 79.8 yards on the ground so far, albeit against inferior competition. In recent years, the rivalry between the two schools has also helped to determine out the top contender in the Big Ten. Since 1993, Ohio State and Wisconsin are first and second, respectively, in wins among the conference's teams.
Gordon can’t help but recognize the parallels between Saturday’s game and the one in 2010, the upset at Camp Randall that ultimately prompted him to sign with the Badgers. That night, Gordon became convinced he could be a star at Wisconsin. This weekend, he’ll have a chance to continue fulfilling that dream.
“I expect it to be tough and physical,” he said. “We’re in conference right now, and that’s when it gets real, when things really matter. Ohio State is a big-time powerhouse. It’s going to be tough. We just need to come out here, practice hard and play confident football.”