INDIANAPOLIS — Melvin Gordon couldn’t help but hear the unrest from Wisconsin football fans displeased with his lack of touches this season. If he was really being honest with himself, he knew a running back with his talent was capable of so much more than he’d been given the opportunity to show.
But he also knew running backs at Wisconsin don’t appear on campus and instantly earn the starting job. There are simply too many other talented players at the head of the line.
“I’ve got some great backs in front of me. They were in my position, too,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they felt the way I felt. They’re always talking to me: ‘Just keep your head up and your time will come.'”
Gordon’s time came Saturday night. And he delivered on the biggest of stages.
Gordon carried the ball nine times and gained a career-high 216 yards rushing with a touchdown to help Wisconsin destroy Nebraska 70-31 in the Big Ten Championship Game. He broke off scintillating runs of 56, 24, 12 and 60 yards — and that was before halftime.
“I loved it for him,” Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips said. “He works all week, every week. Obviously, he’s behind some studs there. It kind of shows what kind of back he can be, and I’m really looking forward to watching him in the future.”
Wisconsin took advantage of Gordon’s speed against Nebraska, sending him in motion and using him on jet sweeps. The plays created plenty of space for Gordon, who showcased his tremendous quickness in 1-on-1 matchups.
On his first carry, Gordon raced around the left side of the line and glided in for a 56-yard touchdown, giving Wisconsin a 7-0 lead less than two minutes in the game.
“When they’re open, I love them,” Gordon said of the sweeps. “As a back, you love the backfield a little bit more. But I can’t complain.”
Gordon, a 6-foot-1, 206-pound redshirt freshman from Kenosha, Wis., left no doubt on Saturday night that he is next in a long line of great Badgers running backs. In most programs, Gordon already would be the featured running back. But most programs don’t have Montee Ball (the all-time FBS touchdown leader) and James White (the Big Ten Freshman of the Year two seasons ago).
As a result, Gordon spent most of his time this season watching Ball and White from the sideline. Before Saturday, he had carried 44 times for 354 yards with two touchdowns, while Ball and White had combined for 415 carries. Even in limited action, however, Gordon’s 8.0 yards per carry were the best among the trio.
“He might be the player that’s grown the most in our program from Game 1 to where we are today,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “It speaks volumes. These guys compete on a daily basis. Montee is great. James is great. Melvin is getting a hang of things. It’s really fun to think about the future.”
Last season, Gordon played in three games early in the season before a groin injury shelved him for the remainder of the year and forced a redshirt season. Now, that injury looks more like a blessing because Wisconsin will have him in a uniform for an extra year.
During the team’s annual spring game last April, Gordon appeared on the cusp of cracking the regular rotation when he carried 30 times for 159 yards with a touchdown. But the backfield was too crowded once the season began.
All the while, Gordon maintained his patience while teammates offered encouragement.
“I was waiting for the game where he was going to really excel and really show what he’s capable of doing,” said Ball, who rushed 202 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday. “I’m sure the coaches are extremely excited for the future. This player is going to be very good. It’s really pleasing for me to see him grow and watch him really do some great things out there.”
Gordon very well could have run for more than 300 yards if given more carries in the title game. He tallied 152 yards on just four rushes in the first half and didn’t touch the ball again until 9:21 remained in the game.
Still, the performance offered a hint of what is to come. With Ball set to play his final college game in next month’s Rose Bowl, Wisconsin has already found his potential replacement.
In other words, Badgers fans clamoring to see more of Gordon won’t have to wait very long.