MADISON - Tailback Melvin Gordon has scored a nation-leading 29 touchdowns this season. One more would make him the third player in FBS history to rush for 2,000 yards and score 30 TDs in a season, joining Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders (1988) and UCF’s Kevin Smith (2007).
He’d be the first one to say he wouldn’t be achieving those numbers without his offensive line. Offensive line coach T.J. Woods would add that the line wouldn’t be anywhere near as good without senior guards Kyle Costigan and Dallas Lewallen, a couple of guys who are probably being held together by duct tape under their uniforms.
“The first thing I think about is toughness when talking about those two guys,” said Woods. “They’ve been through a lot just to be on the field. There aren’t too many kids that I have coached in my career that would go through the same things that they’ve been through to be where they are at right now.”
Toughness comes from the DNA of both players. Both small-town Wisconsin kids (Costigan from Wind Lake, Lewallen from Berlin) who possess blue-collared personas. Neither was heavily recruited, like a handful of other kids on the Badgers’ roster, with no power-five offers between them.
They don’t talk much and they don’t use their injuries as excuses, even though they’ve both put their bodies through hell to play for the Badgers.
“We try not to take it for granted,” said Lewallen. “It’s a great opportunity being an in-state guy and finally getting my shot to be healthy. I’ve tried to seize that, just trying to work hard every day to get better.”
The work they’ve put in hasn’t gone unnoticed (second in the nation with 334.3 rushing yards per game), work that has put No.11 Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) on the cusp of a Big Ten championship. A win would be the fourth in five years for the pair of fifth-year seniors, but only if they can get by the aggressive front of No.6 Ohio State (11-1, 8-0) at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday night.
“Obviously it’s my senior year so I want to be playing as well as I can, and it’s just not happening because I have all these different injuries,” said Costigan. “I’m not healthy, but I am trying to do it every day, take it one day at a time and come out Saturday and play to my potential.”
With all the things wrong with Costigan, it’s surprising he’s not in a wheelchair, let alone shocking that he hasn’t missed a game in two years. Woods listed off Costigan having problems with his back, both knees, his triceps and his foot before realizing it’d be easier to list all the things that are right with him.
“He surpasses my expectations every Saturday when he goes on the field,” said Woods. “Being crafty and finding ways to get things done, I don’t know of very many kids who would be out there.”
Lewallen is healthy, but that’s a first for him since his true freshman season, before he dislocated his knee cap, tore some ligaments and did a handful of other things that he has either forgotten about or chosen not to remember.
Each previous season has been a slow build up to this year for Lewallen, who played in two games in 2011, four games in 2012 and started at center for seven games before injuries ended his 2013 season.
Having played tackle, guard and center on the offensive line throughout the years, Lewallen embraced the move to left guard this spring since he played his first two seasons at the position, earning the team’s offensive scout player of the year as a true freshman.
“Some guys have to develop and some are more fit to start and play right away,” said Lewallen. “I was a developer, and I’ve missed some time with injuries. Staying healthy and working on my technique and fundamentals, I’m finally in a spot to contribute and start like I am right now.”
Although Wisconsin has started the same five players in every game this season, Woods has tried to dial down both Costigan’s and Lewallen’s practice reps, something he calls “a challenge.”
“They are so passionate about their craft and about being the best player they can be, they understand it takes work to sustain, maintain and to improve,” said Woods. “When you limit that work, it’s tough for them to swallow that at times.
“It’s like your car tires when you’ve got 100,000 miles on your tires. They still work, it’s all good, but you don’t want to waste any rotations.”
While the duo may scoff, having a pair of fresh offensive guards has been huge for Wisconsin. The Badgers have rushed for at least 230 yards 11 times this season, including one 400-yard performance (401 vs. Illinois), a 500-yard outing (581 vs. Nebraska) and a 600-yard afternoon (644 vs. Bowling Green). Costigan knows if he was healthy he’d be playing better. That’s an even scarier thought.
“I’m happy I still have the ability to be playing,” said Costigan. “I’ve just got to take it with a grain of salt, I guess.”
Lewallen feels the communication and the relationship off the field has helped the offense put up some gaudy numbers. Wisconsin has rushed for 4,011 yards on the season and lost a total of just 179. They’ve also helped Gordon be at the lead pack of the Heisman Trophy race with one game to go until the award is handed out.
“Personally I think it would be awesome if we could get him to New York,” said Lewallen. “More success for him would be great. I want him to see him get all the success he can. What Melvin has done statistically shows how good of a back he is.”
Not only has Wisconsin’s offensive line been stout against the run, Wisconsin has allowed only nine sacks on the season, second-best in the FBS, and given up a sack on just 3.6 percent of their pass attempts (9 of 252).
Woods racked his brain to determine if any of those sacks could be placed on his two walking wounded interior guards. In the end, none came to mind.
“They really focused in the offseason about becoming complete players,” said Woods. ‘We’re all passionate about running the football around here. We all hold that at the forefront of our priorities, but it’s important as an offensive lineman to be multifaceted. I think both of those kinds have improved tremendous in their pass protection this year.
“I think you see that on the field. Their will, their effort, their intensity, their care factor, I think that makes them the type of players they are. They are tremendous, both of them.”