The path to the 2014 Big Ten Championship game just got a whole lot easier for the Wisconsin football team thanks to Melvin Gordon.
Not only did Gordon propel the No. 20 Badgers to a victory over No. 16 Nebraska and put them in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten West, he set the NCAA single-game rushing record in the process, going off for 408 rushing yards on 25 carries and four touchdowns as Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) defeated the Cornhuskers (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) 59-24 Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
“It’s a special feeling,” Gordon said. “There’s so many days waking up early, just hard work and sweat and to see it pay off with me and my teammates, going out here and having the success, like I said it’s a great feeling. Words really can’t explain how I feel or how my teammates feel.”
The final touchdown and rush of the game for Gordon came at the end of the third quarter from 26 yards out that gave him 408 rushing yards on the day. Gordon’s 408 rushing yards broke TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson’s single-game record of 406 yards that was set back in 1999 against Texas-El Paso.
“Every game you want to play great and get your team on board,” Gordon said. “So you never know when a special day comes, but when it does, it’s a great feeling.”
Gordon was able to gash the otherwise stout Nebraska defense for four runs of 40-plus yards Saturday. Wisconsin now leads the country in runs of 40-plus yards with 20. Andersen and Gordon both gave credit to the Wisconsin offensive line that paved the way for Gordon’s historic performance.
“There were some big holes there,” Andersen said. “Some great opportunities for [Gordon] to get to the next level and when he gets to the next level it’s almost impossible for one person to bring him down and we’ve seen that for his whole career at Wisconsin.”
“It showed Melvin Gordon had 408 yards but it should have everyone up there,” Gordon said. “All the offensive line, because they really made it easy for me today. They allowed me to have a lot of one-on-one matchups and it’s kind of been like that all season. Those guys have really been looking out for me and I couldn’t thank them more.”
Despite the blowout and Gordon’s record-breaking performance, the game started off in Nebraska’s favor as the Cornhuskers took a 17-3 lead over UW after a Tommy Armstrong Jr. 5-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. The Badgers fumbled twice in the opening frame including one from Gordon that set up the Armstrong touchdown run.
But after that the game went all Wisconsin’s way as the Badgers would go on to score 56 unanswered points thanks in large part to Gordon’s efforts on the ground.
After the Armstrong touchdown run, Gordon bounced off a 62-yard touchdown run on the Badgers’ next possession to pull UW within seven at 17-10. But on Wisconsin’s very next possession, Gordon fumbled for the second time in the game giving Nebraska the ball back at the Wisconsin 43-yard line.
“After the second fumble I was kind of just out of it,” Gordon said. “No running back likes to fumble. It’s probably one of the worst things you can do.”
However the nation’s top defense would step up and give the ball right back to the UW offense after Warren Herring jarred the ball loose from Nebraska’s Terrell Newby and Wisconsin’s Joe Schobert jumped on it.
Two plays later, Corey Clement found the end zone from 17-yards set – set up by a Gordon 39-yard run – and the Badgers were tied with the Cornhuskers at 17 with 7:21 left in the second quarter.
Wisconsin finally pulled in front of Nebraska on the following drive when quarterback Joel Stave found tight end Sam Arneson for a five-yard touchdown pass and UW would enter the half with a 24-17 lead. Gordon finished the first half with 238 yards on only 16 carries to average 14.9 yards per rush, including a school-record 189 yards in the second quarter.
After halftime the Badgers came out and dominated Nebraska in the third quarter, forcing turnovers on the Cornhuskers’ first two possessions. While they didn’t score on their first possession of the third quarter, the Wisconsin offense scored a touchdown on three of their next four drives which included a rushing score from quarterback Tanner McEvoy and two touchdowns from Gordon.
While they were down in a 17-3 hole early, Andersen did not think there was a turning point in the game for the Badgers that sparked their turnaround. It was simply a matter of sticking to the game plan.
“There wasn’t a flipping point for the offense or the defense,” Andersen said. “They stayed well grounded. They fought through it and it was an amazing day to watch as a whole football team.”
And of course Gordon certainly helped with the turnaround as well.
“[Having Gordon] is a luxury that I’ve never had as a coach, I can promise you that much,” Andersen said. “To see a performance like that was amazing.”
The Wisconsin defense clamped down after allowing the 17 early points. At the end of the game, Nebraska only managed 180 yards of total offense while running back Ameer Abdullah had 18 carries for only 69 yards. Armstrong completed only six of his 18 pass attempts for a mere 62 yards. He was also sacked four times while Nebraska turned the ball over five times.
It was a defensive performance that came in the national spotlight and one that inside linebacker Marcus Trotter hopes brings well deserved attention to the nation’s top defense. Trotter led UW in tackles Saturday with 12 and had one of the Badgers four sacks.
“I think that hopefully after this game we start to get more respect nationally for our defense,” Trotter said. “I think we may be the only defense, number one total defense that never really got respect, ever. So I’m just happy everything worked out.”
Trotter’s fellow inside linebacker Derek Landisch was the second of three Badgers to break double-digit tackles Saturday, joining Trotter and Joe Schobert who had 11 tackles. Landisch finished the game with 10 tackles and credits going up against great running backs such as Gordon and Clement every day in practice as a reason why they were able to shut down Abdullah, Armstrong and the rest of the Nebraska offense.
“The offensive line played great, the entire offense played great,” Landisch said. “Going up against a freak like Melvin in practice every single day and even Corey. Corey I would say is harder to tackle than Melvin and so going up against those two guys really prepares you.”
But arguably the biggest takeaway for Wisconsin from Saturday’s game is that they continue to control their own destiny and now sit alone atop the Big Ten West. After losing their conference-opener to Northwestern, the Badgers are just two victories over Iowa and Minnesota away from advancing to the Big Ten Championship.
“It’s a tremendous victory for all of us, every single person,” Andersen said. “Every Badger in my opinion should be so proud of these kids. But it’s a big win. It’s a big victory.
“But this game was a lot of fun to be a part of. Thank God I’m here.”