On the road in a hostile environment with a share of the Big Ten West Division title on the line, Gordon gave the Badgers at least one more moment to file away in the memory bank.
Battered, beaten and challenge throughout four quarters, Gordon made the big plays on No.14 Wisconsin’s second to last drive, including a 23-yard touchdown that proved to be the difference in a hard-earned 26-24 victory over Iowa in front of 68,610 fans at Kinnick Stadium Saturday.
Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) finally broke a long streak of close-lost heartbreak. The Badgers had dropped their last 10 contests in games decided by a single possession. The last time Wisconsin pulled out such a game was a 16-14 home victory over Gary Andersen’s Utah State club in 2012.
"I’ve been in so many situations where we’re in that exact kind of situation and came out on the wrong end,” said senior tight end Sam Arneson. “That’s why this team is different. Coming through with some absolutely huge plays when we needed them on offense.”
To the surprise of no one, most of those huge plays came from No.25.
Gordon finished with 200 yards, including a career-long 88 yard in the third quarter that made him the 17th player to surpass 2,000 yards in a season (doing it in only 241st carry, he became the fastest player to do so). The numbers suggested it was easy, when it fact it was far from it.
His day started off auspiciously and reminded him of last year’s frustrating 62-yard performance against the Hawkeyes. Corralled early and often by the Iowa defense, Gordon had only 39 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown at halftime, a 2.8 yards per carry average that showcased how difficult it was.
“It was a physical game, but I knew it would be,” said Gordon. “You can’t worry about the hits. You just got to keep driving, keep going, keep going, get up, even when you get stunned, and make something happen for your team.”
In a way, Gordon validated his Heisman Trophy candidacy in the fourth quarter because of it.
The Badgers appeared in control after Rafael Gaglianone’s 22-yard field goal late in the third quarter put Wisconsin up 19-3, especially with Wisconsin’s top-ranked defense bottling up Iowa’s inconsistent offense.
That changed in a hurry, as the Hawkeyes scored touchdowns on consecutive drives - their first touchdowns against UW since the fourth quarter of 2010 - to pull within 19-17.
In dire straits, Wisconsin turned to Gordon on three straight plays for the rescue. On third-and-13 from UW’s 32, Gordon delivered on a 35-yard catch and run (the longest reception of his career) to move the chains and quiet the crowd.
“The safety (Jordan Lomax) did exactly what we thought he do,” said Gordon. “He came down, I had to bluff him, got out, caught the ball and then I had to make something happen after that.”
In reality he had been preparing for since announcing his return to Wisconsin his junior year. Knowing he had room to grow as a runner and an overall player, Gordon spent the entire offseason working on his pass catching ability.
“Melvin has really improved,” said Andersen about his star’s tailback pass catching. “It’s been talked about many times by myself throughout the year. That was something Melvin wanted to be better at and wanted to be involved, and he is. He’s a big time part of it…He caught a couple balls that were big difference makers for us.”
After another 10-yard completion, giving him a career-high 64 receiving yards on four catches, Gordon scored on a 23-yard run around the left side of the line, patiently waiting for his blockers to establish themselves (even pushing senior Arneson in front of him), to give UW a 26-17 lead with 7:44 remaining.
Although he finished with 200 rushing yards to tie Ron Dayne’s single season rushing mark, Gordon couldn’t do it all himself, however, which was where junior quarterback Joel Stave stepped in.
After Iowa (7-4, 4-3) passed its way into the end zone for the third time in the second half, Stave’s 12-yard scramble – his longest since a 16-yard carry his redshirt freshman season - on third-and-8 clinched the victory. Wisconsin finished 7-for-13 on third downs, a season high for the offense, including the two big ones on the final two drives.
“It was fun to be able to convert a couple third downs on those big drives there in the fourth quarter,” said Stave. “As an offense, that’s exactly what we’ve got to do.”
It was a different kind of victory for Wisconsin, especially since the Badgers’ top-ranked defense gave up a season-high 412 total yards and three second-half touchdowns, as many scores as the last four games combined.
“This is the best offensive line we’ve faced this year,” said senior nose tackle Warren Herring. “They are very disciplined and good what they do. You have to take your hat off to them because they played a good game. We capitalized on what we could.”
Averaging 44.4 points on its five game winning streak, Wisconsin’s big play offense had to rely on grinding out yards against an Iowa defense that was determined to not let Gordon beat them. That forced Wisconsin to try to come up with some curveballs. Fortunately they were pitches that the Badgers ended up connecting with.
Tanner McEvoy, who broke Brooks Bollinger single season rushing record for a quarterback last week, took advantage of a new formation with Corey Clement, Kenzel Doe and Gordon in the backfield, as Iowa’s defense focused on Gordon and left McEvoy unaccounted for on a 45-yards run for the game’s first touchdown.
One drive later, Wisconsin’s grinded off 6 minutes, 35 seconds of game time with a 12-play, 63-yard drive that featured both quarterback converting on third down. McEvoy had a 6-yard rush on third-and-5, and Stave had a 12-yard completion to tight end Troy Fumagalli on third-and-8 and a 13-yard completion to Arneson on third-and-11.
Stave went 4-for-6 on the drive, softening up the Iowa defense enough for Gordon’s 6-yard rushing touchdown to increase the Wisconsin lead to 16-3 before half.
But after Wisconsin couldn’t push the ball into the end zone following Gordon’s career-long 88-yard run late in the third quarter, setting for a field goal and a 19-3 lead, the Badgers spent the final 20-plus minutes desperately trying to hang on.
“I can’t say enough about this team’s character and the way we played,” said Arneson.
And thanks to Minnesota’s come-from-behind victory over No.22 Nebraska, the first win for the Gophers (8-3, 5-2) in Lincoln since 1960, the 124th meeting for Paul Bunyan’s Axe also will advance to Indianapolis as the Big Ten West Division representative. Wisconsin doesn’t want it any other way.
“It’s a great rivalry against Minnesota and for the axe and everything like that, but the fact the winner goes to the Big Ten championship,” said Stave, “that’s everything you want in a rivalry game.”