MADISON - Melvin Gordon had just been through a battle and a tough day at the office when his day got a little worse.
Gordon had just finished up his media interviews following a 37-3 victory over Western Illinois Sept.6, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent that chose to stack the box and held the junior to a paltry 38 yards on 17 carries (2.2 yards per carry) and no rushing touchdowns.
He started to retreat to the locker room until a member of Wisconsin’s athletic communications department put a smartphone in his hands and told him to watch.
On the screen was Nebraska tailback Ameer Abdullah, his good friend and heated competitor, catching a short pass, breaking a pair of tackles and then breaking two more. He knocked another defender – who foolishly tried to take the 195-pound backer down with a shoulder tackle - to the turf, unleashed a spin move off the miss, threw another defender aside and accelerated away from everyone else into the end zone.
“Damn,” Gordon muttered, shaking his head at the sheer power and talent of the run, “he got me again.”
The 58-yard touchdown with 20 seconds left allowed Nebraska to escape with a 31-24 victory over McNeese State and, whether he admits it or not, served as a wake-up call to Gordon, who comes into this weekend’s home matchup with No.11 Nebraska (2:30 p.m. CT on ABC) on a tear.
Rushing for at least 120 yards in every game since, including three 200-yard games, Gordon leads the nation in rushing yards (1,501) and rushing yards per game (166.8) and is second in rushing touchdowns (19).
Abdullah is fifth national in rushing yards (1,250), sixth in rushing yards per game (138.9) and third in rushing touchdowns (17). He’s also more than just a one-trick pony, as he leads the nation in 187.9 all-purpose yards.
“Abdullah is fantastic,” said UW coach Gary Andersen. “He cuts on a dime. He's fast, he's quick, he's physical, catches the ball well, all that stuff. He’s a talented, talented young man, and all the accolades that is talked about him having and that he's received in the past are definitely warranted. He's a tremendous back.”
Gordon, from Kenosha, and Abdullah, from Homewood, Ala., first met when they were practicing for the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in late 2010. The team went to Denny’s every morning before practice, and the two similar personalities found each other.
“Neither one of us were really social at the time,’ so we just sat together every day,” said Abdullah. “We did that for about two weeks and just talked.”
They’ve kept in touch ever since with text messages and phone calls. They’ll see each other this weekend on the opposite sidelines when No.22 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) takes on the Cornhuskers (8-1, 4-1) in a pivotal game that will help determine the Big Ten West Division champion.
“We compete all the time,” said Abdullah. “I don’t like to say it, but I do check the stat line of Wisconsin’s games every Saturday to see what he rushed for and to see if I outrushed him for that week. It’s a friendly competition. It motivates us to do better.”
Looking at the stat book, Abdullah should like what he’s seen. In the seven weeks both teams have played, Abdullah has out rushed Gordon four times. Gordon won the most recent “head to head” matchup November 1 when he rushed for 128 yards and two scores in a win at Rutgers, but that victory comes with a caveat.
Abdullah had 1 yard on six carries against Purdue before leaving the game with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Nebraska had a bye last week, and Abdullah worked out, but did not practice.
“I would expect him to play,” said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. “If I was a doctor and had a crystal ball I’d be able to answer it with some certainty, but I’m not. You get him ready to play and see what happens.”
This will be the fourth time Abdullah has faced Wisconsin, but only the third time he’ll face a Badgers team with Gordon, and the first time with both expecting to play major roles.
Abdullah was a key figure in Nebraska’s 30-27 win in Lincoln in 2012, having 70 rushing yards, 22 receiving yards and 142 kickoff yards. He only had two carries for five yards in the 48-17 loss at UW in 2011 and only had one kickoff return for 23 yards in the 70-31 win in the 2012 Big Ten Championship.
Gordon missed the entire 2011 conference season because of a groin injury and had only two carries for five yards in Lincoln, but put himself on the map with his 216 yards and one touchdown on nine carries (24.0 yards per carry) in the title game.
“It is going to be exciting to see who is the best,” said Gordon of Saturday.
Abdullah, who delivered the keynote speech about the pride he had of being a student-athlete at the Big Ten preseason meetings in Chicago, said his number one priority this season was to graduate in December with a degree in history. On the field, the goal is to simple win games.
“I want to be the guy that turn to when things get tough and adversity strikes,” said Abdullah. “I want to be a solid rock for my team.”
Both Andersen and Gordon reiterated that they wanted to see a 100 percent healthy Abdullah on the field Saturday. After all it’s a competition, just like it always is between the two.
“We don’t want to let each other down,” said Abdullah. “I have high expectations for Melvin, and I am sure he has the same things for me. He don’t want to see my game fall off a little bit, and I don’t want to see his game fall off at all…I just hope he has a terrible game against us.”