MADISON, Wis. — There are no doubt fans that see the eye-popping yards-per-carry average from running back Melvin Gordon and think he deserves the majority of Wisconsin’s rushing opportunities, regardless of teammate James White’s success.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen recognizes the statistical comparison leans heavily in Gordon’s favor. Gordon, after all, is averaging 12.9 yards per carry, while White is at 6.6 per attempt.
Still, that doesn’t mean Andersen intends on changing his philosophy of having them split carries anytime soon.
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Part of the reason Gordon’s numbers are so high, Andersen noted, is because of the way he’s been used in the offense.
“Melvin’s production — and we’ve all got to remember this — Melvin is the fly sweep guy,” Andersen said following Thursday’s practice. “That’s been his play. His yards-per-carry in that play if you want to go back to the Nebraska game and pop this year onto that, I have no idea what it is, but it might be 30 yards. I don’t know. It’s a lot. So I think when you look at his production outside the tackle box, it’s great. We want it. We’ll take all we can get obviously.
“But when you put him in the tackle box with him and James, they’ve both played very, very well. And so has Corey (Clement). You want to get Melvin more reps. You want to keep him fresh, want to keep him clean. James is the same way. We want him to get those reps. So right now we have two starting tailbacks and we have Corey as a quality second or third depending on how you’re looking at it.”
During Wisconsin’s 32-30 loss against Arizona State last Saturday, Gordon rushed for 193 yards on 15 carries with two touchdowns. But 99 yards came on two fly sweeps, with Gordon running in motion and taking the handoff around the edge. Gordon scored on an 80-yard touchdown run off a fly sweep that put Wisconsin ahead 21-13 early in the third quarter.
“On the board, it looks really good,” Andersen said. “But it takes a special player obviously to make those plays, and he is being used. If he gets in space, he’s very difficult to deal with. He’s proven that time and time again.”
Gordon, who said earlier this week he was content to split carries with White, admitted having his teammate on the field in those two-back scenarios was beneficial. White has carried the ball 45 times and Gordon 37.
“James plays a big factor when he’s back there,” Gordon said. “They know what he can do when he gets the ball. You’ve got to keep some guys on him and that left me open.”
Special teams issues: Andersen acknowledged Wisconsin needed to do a better job of handling punt returns after three games of the season. Twice already, a ball has caromed off the leg of a downfield blocker, and a third punt was bobbled by the return man.
“My biggest concern with the return game right now is putting the ball on the ground,” Andersen said. “Really three times on punt return. That concerns me. I think we’re making good decisions, but we’re just too close to traffic. That’s a concern. I think the kickoff returns have been real close a couple times. A couple of those got up to the 25-, 26-yard line. We need one more block. If we’re going to be as potent as we want to be on special teams, I’d like to see the return game take a step up.”
During the Arizona State game, Sun Devils punter Dom Vizzare lofted a 37-yard punt into Wisconsin territory that bounced off Badgers blocker Sojourn Shelton’s leg and was recovered by Arizona State at the Badgers 33.
“It’s just a timing issue,” Andersen said. “That’s part of the game, to be real honest with you, that I don’t think is quite right or quite fair. It makes it very difficult to be able to deal with that because it’s completely out of your control. You’re at the mercy of a kid running with his back to the ball. We talked about it. We’re trying to communicate better and just delete the issue if we can.”
Injury updates: Andersen said Badgers inside linebacker Derek Landisch was expected to play Saturday. Landisch has missed the past two games after injuring his ankle against UMass in the season opener. He’ll likely share playing time with Conor O’Neill, who ranks fourth on the team with 13 tackles.
Andersen said he expected sophomore defensive end Jake Keefer to be back for spring practices. Keefer suffered a lateral meniscus tear during an Aug. 12 practice and will miss the season.
“As tough as he is, he’ll battle like crazy to get back,” Andersen said. “I hope he’s back with us. He could use those reps.”
Going long: Andersen said he thought Purdue would take a page from Arizona State’s playbook and try to test the Badgers’ secondary. Wisconsin was flagged for four pass interference calls, a holding and continually struggled with back-shoulder fade throws in the fourth quarter.
Purdue hasn’t taken many chances downfield, but Boilermakers quarterback Rob Henry is capable of making such throws. He completed 25 of 40 passes for 256 yards with three touchdowns and one interception against No. 21 Notre Dame last week.
“I’m sure people worked on a little bit of the back-shoulder fade,” Andersen said. “And I would expect them to put some balls down the field by way of play-action or even just five-step and taking a shot.”
Andersen added he thought his defensive backs responded well this week following a disappointing performance against the Sun Devils. But it’s also up to his front seven to help.
“The best pass defense is a pass rush,” Andersen said. “And we can’t ever forget that. So we’re putting the pressure on the kids to get there. You watch that, Arizona State, we’re (a snap) away from the quarterback, but it doesn’t matter. We don’t get him. So we’ve got to get there two-tenths, three-tenths of a second faster, whatever if may be. That’ll help us, and we can play a little better in the back end.”