Four Downs: Gordon, Wisconsin outlast Auburn for Outback Bowl win

Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon posted the second-most single-season rushing yards in FBS history in 2014.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers completed a late fourth-quarter comeback to force overtime and beat the Auburn Tigers 34-31 in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. Here are four observations from the game:

Breaking news: A Heisman Trophy finalist and the best running back in the country was worth the price of admission in his final college game. Melvin Gordon, who wrapped up one of the most dynamic seasons by a running back in college football history with another blockbuster performance, torched Auburn’s defense from start to finish in his Outback Bowl encore.

The NFL-bound star didn’t need to put on any more clinics at this level, but he did so anyways.

Gordon rushed for 251 yards and three touchdowns against the Tigers, the 43rd-ranked run defense nationally entering the game. Only one other team had run for 200-plus yards on the ground against Auburn this season (Georgia), but Gordon was in the mood to chase history — and there wasn’t much any Tigers defender could do about it.

Gordon wrapped up his 2014 season with 2,587 rushing yards, the second-most rushing yards in a single FBS season, right behind Oklahoma State’s Heisman winner Barry Sanders. He added 32 total touchdowns for good measure. Thus ends a remarkable career in Madison, highlighted by a two-year stretch in which Gordon amassed 4,196 yards and 44 touchdowns. He was the latest in a long line of Wisconsin backfield stars, but in many ways he was the best of the bunch: both workhorse and home run threat, he put on a show each and every week.

With the assistance of his offensive line, Gordon and the Badgers running game once again established itself against a quality opponent. Wisconsin out-rushed a run-dominant Auburn team 400-219. The two teams combined to run the ball 97 times on the afternoon, but the Badgers averaged 2.3 more yards per attempt and it proved to be a difference-maker.

Auburn joined a growing list of SEC West teams to fall short this postseason, as the division slid to 2-4 in ’14 bowl games.

Along with the Tigers, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State each fell in their respective bowls — the Mississippi schools, once the talk of college football, in dominant fashion at the hands of ACC and Big 12 foes. The two wins came from the division’s lower-tier teams, too: Arkansas thumped Texas while Texas A&M won a shootout with West Virginia. And while Auburn and LSU kept their bowl losses within a field goal, it’s still a disappointing bowl season for what was the consensus top division in college football this season.

Sample size and opponent strength are key factors to consider here (the better your regular season, the better your opponent come bowl season), but the powerful SEC West is now guaranteed no better than a .500 record this postseason … and that’s if Alabama wins the College Football Playoff.

Meanwhile, the lesser SEC East — and yes, it was by far a worse division regardless of bowl results — is 3-0 with wins over Minnesota, Louisville and Miami.

How far can the Crimson Tide carry the torch?

It’s fairly safe to say that the Wisconsin running game isn’t going to simply disappear under new coach Paul Chryst, who was in attendance to watch the Badgers run up 400 rushing yards against an SEC defense on Thursday.

The Badgers have ranked in the top-15 nationally in rushing for each of the past seven seasons, and Chryst, a former Wisconsin assistant, isn’t going to change that approach. After establishing the blueprint for his Pittsburgh program, Chryst’s Panthers averaged more than 250 yards per game (15th nationally) behind bruising running back James Conner. With Gordon’s productive backup, Corey Clement, returning for the 2015 season, the ground game shouldn’t slow down much even after losing a Heisman Trophy finalist.

The first order of business may be to perpetuate what is working so well for this program, but the second one is to find some semblance of offensive balance.

Quarterback play and, as an extension, the passing game in general was a glaring weakness for the Big Ten runner-ups this season.

Rising senior Joel Stave was altogether ineffective for the entirety of the 2014 season. Even with one of the most potent running games in college football, Stave never quite wore the game manager hat well, wrapping up his junior year with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was a non-factor in almost every single big game and whenever he didn’t hand the ball off in the Outback Bowl the Auburn defense caught a break. Sure, he completed a few key passes late, but he still finished the game with 108 total yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.

If Wisconsin wants to challenge for the conference title and College Football Playoff without Melvin Gordon next season, it’ll need to find better quarterback play. Whether that comes from an improved Stave or elsewhere remains to be seen, but from the outside looking in that position looks like it will be a wide-open race under a new coaching regime.

In a game marked by inefficiency in opponent territory, the Badgers sealed the deal with back-to-back made field goals to force overtime and eventually win the game. With Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson’s potential game-tying field goal ricocheting off the upright in overtime, his second miss of the day, the Tigers left six points off the board. Do the math.

Not that the Tigers were ever really going to "win" the kicking game — not with freshman Rafael Gaglianone making his imposing presence known at the national level. The — how should we put this? — large special teams standout knocked in the final six points for the Badgers and stole the social headlines in a competitive Outback Bowl. How could he not?

Three more years of this, college football. Count your blessings.