TAMPA, Fla. - Auburn tailback Cameron Artis-Payne decided to take a sideways swipe at junior tailback Melvin Gordon in the days leading up to the Outback Bowl. Gordon bit his tongue and vowed he was going to step up to the plate.
He did, unleashing a few more “Melvin Moments” for lasting effect.
Playing his final college game, Gordon rushed for an Outback Bowl record 251 yards on 35 carries and three second-half touchdowns in No.17 Wisconsin’s 34-31 overtime victory over No.19 Auburn at Raymond James Stadium.
“We’ve been through so much adversity, losing our coach, our strength coach leaving, just everything, and guys filling in,” said Gordon, who set a new Wisconsin rushing record in a bowl game with his seventh 200-yard game of the season. “We’ve been through so much as a team. We haven’t won a bowl game in four years. It feels good to leave as winners.”
In the days leading up to the game and not feeling he was getting enough of the spotlight shone on him, Artis-Payne decided to pay Gordon a backhanded compliment by saying he wished he could have loved to play against the defenses of Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue instead of the tough SEC defenses he played against.
To be fair Artis-Payne did play against three of the nation’s top 25 rush defenses while Gordon faced none, but Gordon – already motivated by finishing runner-up in the Heisman, getting shutout in the Big Ten championship game and stingy from bowl losses – gladly added those comments to his personal fire.
“It had me a little fired up; I’m not going to lie,” he said.
Interim head coach Barry Alvarez said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s plan was to throw the ball early, forcing Auburn’s defensive line to move around and start to tire, before the Badgers hit them with a steady dose of the run. It was ugly but effective, as Gordon ran for 121 yards on only nine carries (13.4 yards per carry) and two scores in the third quarter alone to carry the Badgers out of an offensive funk.
“I really like what I saw on that opening drive in the second half,” said Alvarez, referring to Wisconsin’s six-play, 75-yard drive that Gordon cashed in with a 25-yard score. “We ran the ball down the field. Basically we had a hard time with them and they had a hard time with us in the second half.”
Gordon’s 25-yard score brought UW back to even at 14, but his 53-yard scamper – his 10th run over 50 yards this season – at the end of the quarter was vintage Gordon. When Alvarez decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the UW 47, Gordon hit a gaping hole between the tackles, made free safety Jermaine Whitehead miss and stiff armed him for the final 15 yards to break the goal line.
“He’s a tremendous team player,” said quarterback Joel Stave. “All that matters for him is to win. For him to end his career here at Wisconsin the way he did with a great performance to really boost the team is really fitting.”
After wrestling with the decision whether to come back or not for his redshirt junior season, Gordon finished the season with 2,587 yards, the second-best single-season total in FBS history and finished only 41 yards behind Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders. He joined Sanders and UCF’s Kevin Smith as the only players in FBS history to run for at least 2,000 yards and score at least 30 touchdowns in a season.
And as an added bonus, he nearly doubled up Artis-Payne’s paltry 126 yards.
“Looking back, a lot of people probably thought it was the wrong decision and a lot of people thought I should have left,” said Gordon. “I feel I get better every year, and I felt like I was going to be a better player than I was last year. There were some things I wanted to achieve. I didn’t get the Big Ten championship, but I got the bowl game out of it.”