Madison , Wis. — The recent controversy over who would start at quarterback for Wisconsin may have captured public attention, but the most important decision for the Badgers may have come way back in December.
That’s when standout running back Melvin Gordon announced he would return to Wisconsin for his junior season instead of opting for the NFL.
As such, the task facing the LSU defense on Saturday night will be containing the 6-foot-1, 213-pound speedster when the Tigers face Wisconsin in the season opener at NRG Stadium in Houston. The Badgers, 9-4 last season, have won 16 consecutive season openers dating to 1998.
“It’s going to be challenging. LSU is a great team,” said Gordon, who enters the 2014 season as the nation’s active career leader in rushing average at 8.1 yards per carry. “Everyone knows them around the nation. They always play hard, physical. They’re athletic. They’re not only strong, they’re fast as well. So, you probably won’t outrun too many people. You have to play ball. It’ll be a tough, physical game, but I think we’re ready. I’m excited to watch them and play against those guys.”
Last season, Gordon led the Badgers with 1,609 yards rushing, despite splitting time with James White, a fourth-round pick by the New England Patriots after running for 1,444 yards. The duo’s combined 3,053 yards set an FBS single-season record for rushing yards by a pair of teammates, and also generated a widely watched video of their touchdown celebration.
Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate, rushed for at least 140 yards in eight of Wisconsin’s 13 games last season, with three runs of 70 yards or longer.
Gordon burst on the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2012 as the No. 3 back behind White and starter Montee Ball, now the projected starter for the Denver Broncos. With Ball carrying 356 times for 1,830 yards and 22 touchdowns, and White adding 806 yards on 125 attempts, Gordon’s attempts were limited. But he made the most of his 62 carries that season, gaining 621 yards for an eye-opening 10.0 yards per carry.
Although junior dual-threat quarterback Tanner McEvoy appears to have wrestled the starting job away from incumbent drop-back passer Joel Stave, Gordon will be the focal point for Wisconsin’s traditional ground-oriented offense.
“We want to run the ball first,” second-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “We want to take some shots with our play action. Our goal is to obviously be a physical, power football team that gets in the fourth quarter and ultimately tries to wear people down and ground it, pound it. That will never change.”
In addition to moving the ball in large chunks, Gordon also protects it. He has not lost a fumble in 288 rushing attempts. The only lost fumble in his career came on a lateral play in Wisconsin’s 34-24 loss to South Carolina in the 2014 Capital One Bowl.
Moving up to the No. 2 spot to spell Gordon is 5-11, 217-pound sophomore Corey Clement, who rushed for 547 yards and seven touchdowns last season, averaging 8.2 yards on 67 carries.
“Corey will be ready,” Gordon said. “Corey works extremely hard. ... His time is here, and I really do feel he’s going to explode on the scene. I’m excited. He’s going to push me.”
Taiwan Deal, a 6-0, 216-pound true freshman, appears to have the inside track on the No. 3 spot. Junior Derek Watt, brother of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, is the starting fullback.
To pave the way, Wisconsin returns all but one starter on the offensive line, including 6-8, 333-pound right tackle Rob Havenstein, a second-team All-Big Ten choice last season.
The Badgers hope to get the ball to their playmakers more out in space. During a scrimmage earlier this month, the more mobile McEvoy ran a couple of option plays, the offense Gordon said he operated out of in high school, where he rushed 2,009 yards and 38 touchdowns as a senior.
One area where Gordon hopes to be more of a factor is as a pass-catcher. Last season, he caught just one pass for 5 yards.
“That’s been my goal: to be a more complete back,” Gordon said. “To me, you can never be too good at something. You’ve got to work on everything.”
During fall camp, Andersen was taken by surprise when asked where on his list of priorities was a potential Heisman Trophy for Gordon.
“Wow. I’ve never thought of that as being a priority for me, but it sure would be a tremendous accomplishment for a young man,” Andersen said. “And, to be involved – the great pass rushers, as a D-Line coach, you don’t make great pass rushers. Heisman Trophy winners? You don’t make Heisman Trophy winners. It would sure be fun to be part of it one day in your career, and I think any coach would say that.”
“At the end, we just want what’s best for Melvin and whatever path that takes him down, hopefully we’ll get a team around him that can support him because he’s had a tremendous camp. You can see how that kid practices. It’s not hard to fall in love with the way he practices, his work habits, his leadership.”