The junior from Kenosha, Wis., has been a part of two Big Ten championship teams, won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top tailback, finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting and rewritten a number of school, Big Ten and national records.
Ending a season on a winning note in the bowl game, however, is a thrill Gordon has yet to achieve.
“That’s one of our goals, and we talked about that as a team,” said Gordon. “It’s always been on our mind.”
Gordon isn’t alone in that sentiment. Nobody on Wisconsin’s current roster has experienced the euphoria of ending their season with a victory and a trophy. The Badgers’ four game bowl losing streak is tied for the longest in school history with a strength from 1953 to ’81.
It’s the reason why Gordon has maintained his focus on No.19 Auburn at the 2015 Outback Bowl (11 a.m. CT Jan.1) instead of letting his mind drift to the NFL combine and all the stress that’s about to come his way.
“I hate losing,” said Gordon.
Whether it be in Pasadena, Calif., or sunny Florida, Gordon points to a similar theme of finishing, or lack thereof, in the three bowl games he’s been a part of as the key reason why the confetti falls for the other team.
His two Rose Bowl experiences were total opposites with similar results. In the 45-38 loss to Oregon in 2012, Wisconsin’s defense allowed 621 total yards. Two years ago against Stanford, the Badgers’ 14 points were the lowest in a UW Rose Bowl since 1960. But both those games ended with Wisconsin having the ball late with a chance to win, only to have time run out or a costly turnover seal its fate.
“We just can’t finish,” said Gordon. “The game is in our hands at the last second. We always get the ball, but we just can’t finish. We come back, we get back in the game and we just can’t finish up.”
Gordon didn’t play against the Ducks and only had nine carries against the Cardinal, which was why last season’s 34-24 loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl stuck with him. He rushed for 143 yards on 25 carries but it was the yard he didn’t get that bothered him.
Facing a third-and-1 on the Gamecocks’ 26-yard line with UW trailing 20-17 at the start of the fourth quarter, Gordon twice couldn’t convert. Six plays later, South Carolina added a touchdown and UW’s offense never recovered.
“I felt I let my team down,” Gordon said of those two plays. “It was one of the things that motivated me (this year.”
As he prepares for Auburn (8-4), Gordon owns Wisconsin’s rushing average school records for a career (7.81 yards per carry), season (7.56, 2014) and game (19.5, vs. Bowling Green, Sept. 20, 2014), but it’s those plays where he puts his head down to move the chains that he has taken an equal amount of pride in accomplishing this year.
“Even in practice as a freshman, if it was a third-and-1 and I didn’t get it, I’d get chewed out,” recalled Gordon. “It’s just a mentality that (the coaches) put in you. You’ve got to get it. You’ve got to get the short yardages. If you don’t get it, it feels bad because that’s what you’ve been taught since you came here.”
The seemingly endless hours of work Gordon put in the offseason has had a twofold response. On the field, Gordon’s 2,336 rushing yards are the fourth-most in a season in NCAA history, while his 29 touchdowns represent the eighth-best single-season total ever.
Rushing for at least 120 yards in 11 of 13 games this season, Gordon leads the nation in yards from scrimmage at 191.3 per game and in runs of 10+ (54), 20+ (31), 30+ (20), 40+ (16), and 50+ (9) yards.
When Wisconsin needed him most during an audacious November stretch, Gordon rushed for 1,092 yards in the month — more than all but 17 of the other 124 FBS teams.
What’s even scarier is what Gordon’s numbers could have been had he played entire games. He only has 48 fourth-quarter carries for 255 rushing yards this season and set a then-FBS record of 408 rushing yards against No.11 Nebraska before watching the final 15 minutes.
“I’ll remember him as probably the best back that ever came through here, and that’s saying a lot,” said Wisconsin interim head coach Barry Alvarez, who added that his former Heisman-Trophy-winning pupil – College Football Hall of Famer Ron Dayne – would likely agree. “He can do it all. He combined now power with great burst. He can make you miss. He’s one of a kind. All the great ones that we’ve had had different styles. He’s got his own style of running.”
As big of success as he’s been on the field, he’s been an even better example off it. The only veteran tailback on the roster, Gordon has helped coach, guide and set a precedent for Corey Clement, Taiwan Deal, Caleb Kinlaw and a host of other young onlookers.
He’s even had a profound impact on running back coach Thomas Brown, who is about to wrap up his first season at Wisconsin and third season overall as a college assistant.
“It’s an awesome experience for me,” said Brown. “I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to coach him. Melvin is obviously a great player, a great human being. People talk about how great a player he is, which he is that. He demands that attention, but he’s definitely a great person.”
While the 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game lingers for some, it doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of Gordon and Wisconsin. The Badgers won 10 regular season games for only the fourth time in school history, won the inaugural Big Ten West Division championship and qualified for a bowl for a program-record 13th straight season (fifth straight in January).
Was the season a success for Gordon from a team standpoint? He’ll be able to answer that Thursday afternoon before he takes off his Wisconsin jersey for the final time.
“If we win this bowl game, I think it will be a successful season,” said Gordon. ‘We wanted to be Big Ten champs. West Division champs is good, but Big Ten champs is what we were aiming for. “Out of those two goals, if we can get one of those, it can be a successful year.”