MADISON, Wis. — James White burst through a seam on third down, planted his foot in the ground and juked his defender, only to be met by another safety at his own 34-yard line. All that remained between White and the end zone was a final 1-on-1 matchup. And if fans have watched enough Wisconsin football this season, they knew what was coming next: Purdue’s Taylor Richards had no chance.
White, the Badgers’ speedy tailback, shook free with a devastating cutback that dropped a diving Richards to the turf and raced in for a 70-yard first-quarter touchdown, the longest of his career. When he jogged to the sideline and looked at fellow Badgers running back Melvin Gordon, he said nothing. He didn’t have to.
Gordon had no choice but to keep pace.
“He said he had to go out there and get him one,” White said following No. 24 Wisconsin’s 41-10 pasting of Purdue on Saturday. “That’s pretty much what happens each and every time. He scores a touchdown, when he gets to the sideline, it’s, ‘Yeah I’ve got to get me a touchdown, get me a breakaway or something.’ It’s just healthy competition, trying to go out there and compete with one another.”
White and Gordon have been competing for carries, yards and touchdowns all season. And as their healthy competition continues, they’re set to leave the rest of college football in the dust.
Gordon carried 16 times for 147 yards and three touchdowns against Purdue, while White added 16 carries for 145 yards and one score. It marked the third time in four games both players eclipsed the 100-yard mark this season, and there appears to be no slowing down in sight.
One-third of the college football season is through, which provides a reasonable barometer to draw conclusions. It also leads to this question: Is there a better running back duo in the country than White and Gordon?
“I’ll let you guys debate on who’s got the best backfield tandem in the nation,” Gordon said. “But we’re playing well right now, which is good. We’re competing with each other. We’re playing well.”
Consider that White and Gordon are one of just two running back tandems in the country that each average 100 yards rushing per game. Arkansas’ Alex Collins is averaging 120.2 yards and teammate Jonathan Williams 104.5. They have combined for five rushing scores.
But Gordon is averaging 156.0 yards rushing per game and White 110.5. They have combined for 10 rushing touchdowns.
Gordon, a third-year sophomore, now leads the country in total rushing yards and is slowly establishing himself as perhaps the most electric, consistent, punishing running back in the country. White, a senior, is the active FBS leader among tailbacks in rushing yards (3,013) and rushing touchdowns (35). And they form a difficult duo to defend with White’s shiftiness and Gordon’s power.
“I know there’s a lot of great running backs out there,” Badgers center Dan Voltz said. “I wouldn’t want to block for anybody else than who we have back there.
“It gives us a lot of confidence knowing that our blocks are going to pay off. Even if we don’t fit out the schemes perfectly, fall off a block or something, there’s still a chance those guys will make a big play. That happened a lot today.”
The fact both players are talented is not a new development. But each has an opportunity to showcase his skills in a new way this season with the departure of the FBS all-time touchdown leader Montee Ball, who won the Doak Walker Award for best college tailback last season and now plays for the Denver Broncos. A year ago, with Ball taking the bulk of the touches, White averaged 8.9 carries per game and Gordon 4.4, primarily on sweep plays around the edges.
This season, White is averaging 15.3 carries and Gordon 13.3.
First-year Badgers coach Gary Andersen said he had never worked with a tandem as talented as White and Gordon — though he has coached a running back duo that went to the NFL. Andersen’s 2011 Utah State team featured Robert Turbin and Michael Smith, who were taken in the fourth and seventh rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft. Turbin and Smith combined for 2,387 yards and 28 rushing touchdowns for the Aggies in 2011.
White and Gordon, in a smaller sample size, have impressed even more.
“They’re very, very talented, especially with the way they fit into this type of offense,” Andersen said. “We had a couple years ago two NFL backs that were playing for us. Obviously, I believe we have two NFL backs playing for us now. But they’re just so dynamic, their ability to make people miss. They really kind of complement each other with the running styles in my opinion. So they’re special kids.”
What makes the system work so well is the relationship White and Gordon have formed. Each player is genuinely happy for the other when he breaks a big run or scores a touchdown. And they have learned that with a spotlight as big as the one in Wisconsin’s backfield, there is room for both.
Gordon and White are used to sharing their successes, dating as far back as high school. White split carries with current Cincinnati Bengals tailback Giovani Bernard when the two both played at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Gordon shared time with Vonte Jackson, another current Badgers tailback, at Kenosha (Wis.) Bradford High.
“James gets the first series, I get the second series,” Gordon said. “It just works like that. We just share carries. It’s not too difficult for me and James to share the ball. … We’ve both been through the same thing, so it’s nothing new.”
Both White and Gordon began the season on the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award, and the two could be rare teammates on the final list together, with a realistic opportunity to join Ball as back-to-back winners from Wisconsin.
“I feel like we have a very explosive backfield,” White said. “We try to go out there and be the best backfield on the field each and every day.”
Forget the best on the field. More and more, they appear to be the best in the country.