MADISON, Wis. — Mean-spirited mail tends to be anonymous, so Melvin Gordon has no idea exactly who sent him letters last season. He does know those people fit a certain disposition — fanatical nuts whose rooting interests leaned heavily in the direction of Iowa football.
In those letters, Gordon would read comparisons between his statistics and that of Iowa running back Mark Weisman, a starter beloved by the Hawkeye State who carried the ball 16 times per game. Gordon, meanwhile, was relegated to backup status behind Montee Ball and James White and carried only four times per game.
This could have been you, Iowa fans suggested. And that was during a season in which Iowa and Wisconsin did not even play.
“That was some motivation from last year,” Gordon said this week. “I know this year I’m preparing for the fans.”
Had Gordon followed through on his initial commitment before his senior year of high school to play football at Iowa, he would be on the opposite sideline Saturday. Instead, Gordon backtracked and picked his homestate Badgers. So when No. 22 Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) travels to face Iowa (5-3, 2-2) at 11 a.m. in Kinnick Stadium, emotions surely will be running high.
“It was difficult for me,” Gordon said of switching to Wisconsin. “It was extremely hard for me. The relationship we had (at Iowa) was great. To let them know that I didn’t want to go there and I wanted to commit to Wisconsin was tough.
“If I could go back, I probably wouldn’t have committed so early. Probably soft verbal. I didn’t know about any of that stuff. I was 17. De-committing was extremely hard for me.”
Gordon, a 6-foot-1, 207-pound native of Kenosha, Wis., said remaining closer to home played a pivotal role in his decision. His last visit to Kinnick Stadium came on Nov. 20, 2010, when he watched Ohio State come back for a 20-17 victory against Iowa. The Hawkeyes finished 8-5 and won the Insight Bowl that season, while the Badgers won their first of three straight Big Ten titles and went on to appear in the Rose Bowl against TCU.
“I think my mom wanted me to go to Iowa,” Gordon said. “My dad wanted me to go to Wisconsin. My dad was pretty upset. I wanted to be close to my family and I wanted my family to be closer to me and supporting me, so that definitely played a big reason.”
Gordon’s decision to change allegiances no doubt chafed Hawkeyes fans, even two years later. But Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday he understood the pull of remaining close to home.
“If you want the honest answer on that one, he committed to us and I remember the day it happened and all that,” Ferentz said. “But I never got the feeling everybody was totally on board with that in his entire family. Recruiting is an emotional thing and all that stuff.
“It didn’t work out that way. It’s hard to recruit across state borders. I’m not saying that was the sole deciding factor. But Wisconsin, I think it’s a matter of fact that they’ve done a wonderful job of recruiting their state.”
Gordon, it turns out, has proven to be as good as Iowa fans once hoped. Even better, actually.
On Tuesday, Gordon was named one of 16 semifinalists for the Maxwell Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding college football player. The redshirt sophomore is the only Big Ten player on the list and one of four running backs to make the cut.
The statistics will show he is achieving things at a rate that is unmatched by almost any player in the country — even by Iowa running back Mark Weisman. Gordon ranks fourth in the country in rushing yards per game (144.6) and leads the nation in yards-per-carry average (9.5) among FBS players with at least 50 carries. And he has achieved these numbers on just 107 carries, while teammate James White has 108 carries. In total, 60 players have taken more than 107 carries so far this season.
In many ways, Gordon is proving to be a more explosive running back than Ball, who won the Doak Walker Award for best college running back last season. In just seven games, Gordon already has long touchdowns against UMass (70 yards), Arizona State (80 yards) and Northwestern (71 yards). Ball never gained more than 67 yards on any carry in his entire career and averaged 5.1 yards-per-carry last season.
All this is to say that Gordon has put himself in position to win the Doak Walker Award and make a run at being a Heisman Trophy finalist, particularly if Wisconsin wins out to finish 10-2 and earns an at-large berth in a BCS bowl game.
In a Tuesday poll of 16 ESPN sports writers and analysts, Gordon ranked fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting behind four quarterbacks — Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Baylor’s Bryce Petty.
And Gordon would appear to have the inside track on any other running back for both honors. The three other tailbacks on the Maxwell Award list are Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey, Washington’s Bishop Sankey and Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk.
Carey leads the country in rushing yards per game (155.3). But the 5-2 Wildcats could lose three more games against UCLA and Oregon at home and on the road in the regular-season finale against Arizona State.
Sankey ranks third in rushing yards per game (145.3). The Huskies are 5-3 and could still realistically lose road games against UCLA and Oregon State in November.
Seastrunk would appear to be Gordon’s biggest competition for both honors. He plays on a Baylor team that is undefeated and averaging 718.4 yards per game and 63.9 points — both totals that lead the country. But his stats may be canceled out some because of the productivity of the team’s quarterback.
Gordon, for one, won’t spend time getting caught up in the possibilities of grandeur — another reason for his success this season.
“I try not to think about it at all,” he said. “As quick as someone can talk about you, you can have probably one or two bad games and now you’re not even thought of or talked about anymore. It’s all publicity. I really don’t worry about it too much. I just want to play and help our team win.”
Gordon did not get here overnight, although it sometimes seems that way.
Two years ago, he appeared in three games and carried the ball 20 times for 98 yards. But a groin injury forced him to take a redshirt season. A year ago, with Ball busy taking 356 carries, Gordon was limited to 62 carries that rarely came with him as a traditional backfield runner. During those moments on the sideline, he reminded himself that his time would arrive soon.
With Ball gone to the NFL in April, Gordon said he spent the offseason training harder than he ever had, staying in shape and working on his power and speed.
“I think he’s matured,” Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock said. “He came back with a renewed sense of purpose. I think he was ready to seek the opportunity.”
Through four games, Gordon was averaging 156.0 yards per game and suddenly popping up on NFL Draft boards in the first round. Sports Illustrated listed Gordon going 29th overall in the first round to the Houston Texans. He appears to be hovering in the second round on most mock drafts at this stage, though Gordon noted he had not yet begun to think about leaving early for the pros.
First-year Badgers coach Gary Andersen said he knew Gordon could be a special player after watching film of Wisconsin’s 70-31 blowout victory against Nebraska in the Big Ten championship last season. In that game, Gordon carried just nine times but rushed for 216 yards and scored a touchdown. He also averaged 10.0 yards per carry for the entire season. But he has exceeded even his coach’s expectations of him.
“Melvin’s productivity is off the charts, which we all know,” Andersen said. “Past that, his ability to be unselfish and stay in the moment, prepare each week, be just steady Eddie, which we challenge the team week in and week out to do is incredible for Melvin.
“It’s impressive the way he handles the success that he’s had. I’ve never heard Melvin say it’s about me or I’m doing this. With Melvin, it’s about his offensive line, his tight ends, his fullback, quarterback.”
Gordon said when he began the season, he thought it was a realistic possibility that he could eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau. But he never envisioned achieving the mark only halfway through the season. Now, his goals have shifted into a higher gear.
“I want to get more than that,” he said. “I just want to be one of the best players. I’ve got the coach for it. We’ve got great competition in our group that’s going to push us. We expect nothing but the best.”
This season, Gordon is leading the Badgers’ charge. And if he has his way Saturday, he’ll make it even more difficult for Iowa fans to forget him.