His graceful yet explosive running style and ability to outrun Nebraska linebackers and defensive backs may be the key to Wisconsin pulling off the upset in Lincoln. And no, I’m not talking about Montee Ball.
I’m talking, of course, about dreadlocked running back Melvin Gordon, whose head-turning 112-yard day against University of Texas at El Paso helped Wisconsin put away its final nonconference opponent late in the fourth quarter. It was the first chance fans had to see the four-star tailback out of Kenosha Bradford High — who head coach Bret Bielema has gushed about since he arrived on campus last fall — in action. And boy, did he impress.
Averaging an insane 14 yards per carry against a UTEP defense ranked 103rd (of 120) against the rush, Gordon used his speed around the corners to elude even the quickest Miner defenders. Running it into the end zone for one touchdown and coming a step out of bounds away from a second, he showed exactly why he was so lauded out of high school.
More precisely, Gordon showed why he deserves to be Wisconsin’s No. 2 option at tailback. At 6-foot-1 and just over 200 pounds, he is the perfect complement to Ball’s style — adept reading of his blocks and powering through undersized defenders for extra yards. The former Heisman finalist and 2012 preseason favorite for the most prestigious award in college football has sufficient speed, but it’s not his game.
Ball is a physical and intelligent runner who loves contact, making him all the more fun for fans to watch. Gordon is a speedy, change-of-pace back — essentially, a better version of James White. No discredit to White, who has no doubt helped open up holes for Ball in his three seasons in Madison. Though No. 28 hogs the spotlight, there’s no way he would gain 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns on the ground last season without White behind him.
But he is turning into the second coming of former Badgers running back Zach Brown. Before the 2009 season, the media and fans expected Brown and hulking tailback John Clay (is anyone actually surprised his NFL career didn’t pan out?) to split the load equally in the backfield. Yet Clay soon established himself as an impossible-to-tackle beast of man, and Brown finished the year with only 66 carries to his counterpart’s 287. After taking a redshirt season in 2010, Brown transferred to Pittsburgh and faded into obscurity.
A strangely similar situation gripped the backfield last season, as most fans looked at Ball and White as a dangerous two-headed rushing attack. And we all know how that worked out.
After taking only 10 carries for 63 yards in the season-opener against University of Nevada - Las Vegas, Ball assumed control. He ran for at least 150 yards in five of the final six games of last year, twice crossing the 200-yard threshold. And that was that. White became the change-of-pace guy, a distant second option when Ball needed to catch his breath before running in yet another touchdown.
Just four games into his collegiate career, Gordon has proved he’s ready for a similar role. As long as he’s in Madison, Ball will remain the feature back in this offense. But the oft-praised Gordon — who took a grand total of two carries in UW’s first three games — needs to see more action.
Yes, it was UTEP, a Conference USA squad. But no matter how you approach it, he was an electrifying force for an offense that has struggled to light up the scoreboard this year. His 13 yards per carry rank third in the nation, and even if he only takes five carries a game, he needs to be a featured part of the gameplan. The offense will surely hit a wall against Nebraska at some point this weekend. So why not throw him in on a third and 8 to try to re-energize a stalled drive?
It might be a tough pill for Wisconsin coaches to swallow, to put in Gordon over the more experienced White, who has rushed for nearly 2,000 yards in his collegiate career. He is an effective, shifty runner, but this offense is still sculpting its identity and the redshirt freshman is the perfect addition.
If Bielema proved anything through this rocky nonconference season, it’s that he isn’t afraid to make bold changes if he believes it will help the program. And so far, the changes have worked. The offensive line has shown promising improvement since he fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson two games into his tenure in Madison and replaced him with the completely unproven Bart Miller.
Benching Danny O’Brien midway through a nail-biting 16-14 victory looks like the right decision, as first-time starter Joel Stave put up solid numbers, and aside from a misread that led to an interception, avoided costly errors.
So it’s time for his third big move: drop White to a few carries a game and hand over his current workload to Gordon. His resume may not be as strong, but Gordon has shown what he can do for an offense that will need all the help it can get against the Cornhuskers Saturday.
In a season riddled with change, increasing Gordon’s carries can serve as the appropriate capstone.
Ian is a senior majoring in journalism. Agree or disagree Gordon should take on a bigger role in the Badgers’ offense? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @imccue.