MADISON – The quarterback situation is still unsettled and it’s still unknown if the University of Wisconsin has the make up to win a big close or a close game in 2014.
But it’s well known that the Badgers have junior tailback Melvin Gordon, who continues to assert himself as one of the best tailbacks in the country.
Gordon took another step in the Heisman Trophy conversation Saturday in rushing for a game-high 175 yards and four touchdowns in Wisconsin’s 38-28 win over struggling Illinois at Camp Randall Stadium.
Rushing for at least 175 yards for the fourth straight game, Gordon pushed his season rushing total to 1,046 yards, becoming the first Wisconsin tailback to break the century mark in only six games.
“I feel like now in the Big Ten with how the backs are playing, if you don’t run for over 150 it’s not a good day,” said Gordon, who registered his 14th game over 140 yards, the most in the FBS. “It’s just how we’re playing in the Big Ten conference. The backs are performing, so you’ve got to come out every week and do your best.”
Going against an Illinois defense that ranked 119th in the country in rush defense (249.5 yards per game), Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) kept the ball on the ground early and never relented. The Badgers’ first 11 plays and 26 of its 38 first-half snaps were handoffs, attacking the Illini in a variety of ways.
Wisconsin primarily ran the power plays, but threw a couple end arounds to change up the pace for good measure. Of the 44 non-team rushes Wisconsin ran, only four went for negative yards, as Natrell Jamerson (23 yards) and Kenzel Doe (34 yards) both made the most of their jet sweep opportunities.
“Much like we talk about the pass game has to open things up, the jet sweep, the fly sweep, definitely causes reactions in defenses that are hard to be able to deal with,” said UW coach Gary Andersen.
Gordon’s touchdowns runs went for 15, 6, 30 and 1 and varied between power and finesse. He twice bullied his way into the end zone and twice bounced runs to the outside and out ran the defense due to perfectly executed blocks by his linemen, tight ends and receivers.
“As a back, even when we do preparations, I really lock in because that’s where you make your money,” said Gordon. “As a back you get right there, you’ve got to be hungry, you’ve got to be aware, you’ve got to be ready. You’ve got to score however. Whatever they call, you’ve got to get in the end zone. That’s the mindset.”
But it was a run that didn’t find the end zone that could be considered his Heisman moment of the day. Looking to tack on points before the half, Gordon delivered on a 46-yard run despite getting tripped at the line of scrimmage, only pausing a moment to steady himself before hitting the gas. UW added on a 44-yard field goal right before halftime because of it.
“Huge spark,” said senior right tackle Rob Havenstein. “Melvin’s electric in everything he does. He doesn’t break off a big run and then come back and, ‘OK, good job guys.’ He comes back fired up and pumped up. That infectiously spreads around everyone.”
One of the players who took advantage of Gordon’s play was Clement, who admitted he had started pressing with some of his carries. Coming off a frustrating six-carry, 22-yard performance against Northwestern, Clement admitted that the runs started coming to him in the second half, rushing for 153 of his career-high 164 yards in the final quarters.
He punctuated his day with a 72-yard touchdown scamper to begin the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 38-14.
“(Gordon’s) taking the majority of the snaps so I just feed off of him and ask him,” said Clement. “I ask him what’s going on out there (like), ‘are the safeties down low pressing?’ Once I go into the game I take that into consideration, and decide if I have to be patient, hit it hard and be about my business once I get out there.”
The tailbacks’ play took the attention off the quarterback spot, which stayed fairly consistent with junior quarterback Joel Stave getting his first start and working every drive but one. Stave finished 7-for-14 for 73 passing yards in his first start since January’s Capital One Bowl, and got eased in thanks to Gordon and Clement.
“We’ve got very talented backs, very talented group up front,” said Stave. “That’s something we know we can rely on.”
The running game also covered up a porous special teams effort and the defense struggling with the triple option, all of which made the final score closer than it likely should have been.
Dealing with its own quarterback issues with starter Wes Lunt out with a broken leg, Illinois (3-4, 0-3) put a scare into Wisconsin early with Reilly O’Toole taking advantage of short field position with two first-quarter touchdown passes, the last of which gave the Illini a 14-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Both scores came with Illinois starting in Wisconsin territory after 35-yard punts by Drew Meyer.
“Our inability to ineffectively flip the field showed its head again today,” said Andersen. “Our special teams have got to get better.”
After allowing Illinois to gain 84 total yards in the first quarter, Wisconsin’s defense limited the Illini to 77 yards in the middle two quarters, but saw backup quarterback Aaron Bailey lead two scoring drives to tighten the score. The Badgers needed a late interception by Peniel Jean after Illinois recovered an onside kick to seal the victory.
“The way it took place at the end is unacceptable, and we can’t sit back and hide from it,” said Andersen.
While the Badgers are using a perceived soft schedule to work though some problems on both sides of the ball, there’s no covering the fact that Gordon is being relied on to carry the workload.
“That’s expected when you’re considered to be a leader,” said Gordon. “It’s a little pressure but as a leader that’s something you have to deal with. I’ve gotten a lot this year … Different guys come up here and reach me and approach me during a game, I take that, I listen and I feel good about it and I try to help them boys out the best I can.”