Big Picture: Can Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin steal the Big Ten title?

BY Bruce Feldman • November 17, 2014

Lost in the dazzling record-setting performance by Melvin Gordon Saturday when he broke LaDainian Tomlinson’s FBS rushing record with 408 yards against a solid Nebraska defense was the play of the Badgers’ D. Wisconsin held No. 16 Nebraska to just 180 total yards -- 310 below their season average. Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's bunch also bottled up Huskers star Ameer Abdullah, a Heisman contender, to just 69 rushing yards on 18 attempts with his longest run going for just 13 yards.

In 2013, Aranda had quite a debut in Madison, installing his 3-4 defense and coaching the Badgers to top 10 rankings in total D (seventh) and rushing defense (fifth). But entering this season there were some expectations that UW would tail off since it had only three starters returning and difference-makers like Chris Borland and Dez Southward had moved on to the NFL.

Instead, the Badgers have gotten better. They now lead the nation in defense, limiting opponents to just 4.09 yards per play (from 4.73 last year), and in total defense at 244 yards per game while ranking No. 5 in rushing defense.

I asked Aranda what's been the key to the improvement. "It's a hard question to answer," he said. "The credit goes to these kids. We have a bunch of seniors playing for the first time. A lot of them came as former walk-ons. Two of our four LBs were walk-ons. We had such a senior class that had accomplished so much and they just left. These kids are getting their chance to play and it just means so much to them. You can see the sacrifices that they put in."

Aranda -- a guy who broke into coaching working for Mike Leach (at Texas Tech), Art Biles (at Houston) and Greg McMackin (Hawaii) -- stressed that the Badgers’ defensive trademark is much like it was before he arrived and was simply a fan of their work; they’re almost always in the right place and are very precise in their run fits.

"All the fits are drawn," Aranda told FOX Sports Sunday. "They spend a crazy amount of time getting that down. A lot of places you wouldn't want to overload kids like that. Here, it's very detailed, and at times probably too much, but it's a unique group (and they can handle it). It's pretty cool."

The benchmark for shutdown defense in the Big Ten has been Michigan State the past few years. "We have great respect for them, but (scheme-wise) we're the exact opposite of what they do," Aranda said. "We play a 3-4, play base coverage and attack with four people. We say, 'Let's find the weakness in the protection and attack that.'"

The Badgers pride themselves on winning one-on-one matchups. Against Nebraska, they had four base calls. Three were simulated pressures, Aranda said, that were essentially a four-man rush designed to look like a blitz with some window-dressing on top of it to try and keep the Huskers off-balance and guessing pre-snap.

"We wanted to show one thing, get out of it and do something else," he said, adding that coordinating all of that scheme-wise is one thing against the pass, but it's even more challenging knowing Abdullah may be handed the ball. "The trick is to get all that stuff fitted up in the run game," Aranda said, conceding that it's "a nerve-wracking deal."

The Badgers totaled four sacks and eight TFLs to give them 32 sacks and 71 TFLs through 10 games, topping the 26 sacks and 64 TFLs they had in 13 games last season. 

If there's a headliner of the group, it's leading tackler Michael Caputo, a 212-pound junior safety who is like a rover linebacker playing in the box. "He's got that attitude and toughness, and it really rubs off on people," said Aranda.

Aranda also credits the training the Badger defense gets in practice from having to try to corral Gordon. 

"He's awfully twitchy," Aranda says of the Wisconsin tailback. "He can make some sharp cuts, which you normally don't get from long-levered guy. We have to get in position to tackle him. That's not an easy proposition."

Aranda says one area Gordon has improved this season is how well he's running between the tackles. "He's an angry runner now."

But Aranda said that demeanor doesn't carry over to how the Badgers star is off the field, comparing his character to Borland, a team favorite. 

"Melvin is such a great person with a great heart and is a class act,” Aranda said. “I think that does inspire the people around him."

WHAT’S NEXT FOR FLORIDA?

So 2014 will be the end for Will Muschamp at Florida. He's owed around $6 million and figures to be in line for a good DC job in 2015 (probably somewhere in the SEC). What's next for UF? I don't see AD Jeremy Foley going the coordinator route again. He just did that with Muschamp and it also didn't work out when he hired another unknown head coaching commodity in Ron Zook. UF did have great success with sitting head coaches Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier, a pair of offensive guys.

My hunch is that Foley, at some point, will give a long look to Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy and Auburn's Gus Malzahn. Of that group, the one I think would be toughest to pry away would be Malzahn. I know on paper former Florida OC Dan Mullen, who is having a terrific season at Miss. State, makes a lot of sense, but word is there was some friction between he and Foley when he worked in Gainesville. I suspect Foley's first call probably is to OU's Bob Stoops, a former UF DC, to see if he's ready for a change. No idea really how intrigued Stoops would be. Would he want to coach against his brother Mark in the same division over at Kentucky?

I've heard from some folks close to UF that the Florida brass is leery of anyone with "baggage" -- namely Rodriguez, who had some NCAA issues while at Michigan, although I'm not sure how substantial those actually were especially since many coaches who've been around for a decade-plus have be linked to some issues in one fashion or another. It will be an interesting couple of months.

MY CURRENT FOX FOUR BALLOT

The Week 12 FOX Four is out. Here is my individual ballot.

1. Florida State: I know their resume doesn't have many, or at least at this point, ANY top-25 opponents on it, but it's not like they're facing all FCS opponents. I get that their "best" win -- over ND -- keeps looking worse as the Irish plummet from the rankings. They're still facing some teams with some talented players and no matter how much of a hole they find themselves in, they've ALWAYS found a way to win, home or road, and to me that still is a big deal. And I wouldn't pick anyone in college football to beat FSU as long as Jameis Winston's playing on a neutral field.

2. Oregon: The Ducks have some very impressive wins in the non-conference and on the road. Their lone loss was against a good Arizona team, and it was a long time ago.

3. Alabama: The Tide got their signature win over No. 1 Miss. State -- Nick Saban's fifth win over a No. 1 team in his college career. The reason why I have the Ducks in front of Bama is because Oregon's been more consistent (better on the road).

4. Baylor: Art Briles' team hung 61 on TCU and last time out beat OU by 34. In Norman.

5. TCU: The Horned Frogs had their hands full with lowly Kansas, but they do have some very good wins on their resume and their loss by three at Baylor in a game they were up big in the fourth quarter isn't a bad one.

6. Ohio State: I had Miss. State here and then flipped them, because I think the Buckeyes are trending up and the Bulldogs are not. OSU has a more impressive win than any MSU has with its win last week at Michigan State. The Buckeyes do have a much, much worse loss (home against a mediocre Virginia Tech team), but that was at the start of the season and J.T. Barrett is a much different QB since then.

7. Miss. State: Dak Prescott is struggling, throwing three picks in the loss at Bama with two coming in the Red Zone. Their three best wins also came against teams (Auburn, LSU and A&M) that all lost Saturday, and two of those teams were embarrassed. 

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a very good win over Alabama. After that it's pretty thin, although they did thump both Memphis and Tennessee, who are both playing better of late, but still. The bad news: They've lost their past two games against FBS opponents to two teams with a combined seven losses (Auburn and LSU).

9. UCLA: The Bruins’ blowout win at ASU doesn't quite look as good with the Sun Devils losing to a shaky Oregon State team this weekend, but they've still won four in a row and did beat Arizona by 10 points.

10. Georgia: The most inconsistent team in the country has two bad losses to South Carolina and a Florida team that ran all over them for over 400 yards, but the Dawgs are ahead of Michigan State because they did shutout Mizzou at home and just routed Auburn, giving Gus Malzahn his worst loss with the Tigers.

TWO STAR SEMINOLES

FSU's latest rally showcased two budding stars in true freshman RB Dalvin Cook and sophomore DB Jalen Ramsey. Cook came through to spark the Noles’ rally against his hometown Miami -- just like he did two weeks ago at Louisville. Ramsey, who last year played some corner but has since blossomed at the "star" position, the same spot Lamarcus Joyner, um, starred at.

Watching Ramsey all over the field Saturday night, I recalled speaking with an old NFL scout I know who'd told me a few weeks back that Ramsey is a three-and-out talent. The kid sure played like it Saturday night. He was everywhere, recording four pass breakups, one TFL, one forced fumble and a game-sealing INT.

WHAT HAPPENED TO NOTRE DAME?

So much for Notre Dame as a playoff contender. The Irish, who looked so solid early despite playing without their best DB KeiVarae Russell, allowed 12 ppg in their first five games. However, since then it's been a disaster. In the last five games: 42 ppg allowed.

TWO PROGRAMS ON THE RISE

Two proud programs that had been struggling the past few years are seeing some really encouraging signs in the past month. Both programs go by UT -- the University of Tennessee and the University of Texas. Charlie Strong's team dominated Oklahoma State, 28-7, on the road. The Longhorns held OSU to just 192 yards and forced three turnovers. They've now won three in a row and held their last three opponents to 12 ppg. Strong's setting the tempo, not surprisingly, with stingy defense. Texas has allowed the fewest 40-yard plays of anyone in the country (two). Last year, they allowed nine.

The Vols have won two in a row, averaging 48 ppg in those games, after whipping Kentucky, 50-16. The rise in Butch Jones' team has been sparked by the emergence of dual-threat QB Josh Dobbs, a sophomore.  In their first three SEC games, UT averaged less than 15 ppg. With Dobbs playing, UT's averaging 38 ppg in the last three. Another big key for the Vols has been the rise of freshman DE Derek Barnett, who has set a school-record for true freshmen with 18 TFLs and nine sacks. In six SEC games, the 6-foot-3, 268-pounder has 15.5 TFLs and nine sacks.

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

3. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State

4. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama

5. Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana

Barrett, the Buckeyes' redshirt freshman, has been a revelation and is making a case for at least a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony. On the road at Minnesota in snowy conditions, he sparked OSU to 9-of-13 on third downs. Since the Buckeyes’ Week 2 loss to Va. Tech, Barrett has thrown 26 TDs and just four INTs, and he's run for eight more.

Barrett's made pinpoint throws that few college QBs can make consistently, or as Buckeye OC Tom Herman preaches: "Timing and ball-placement win EVERY time." My hunch is it's Mariota's to lose, but Gordon certainly narrowed the gap with his record-setting performance.

Props to Arkansas for getting their first SEC win in the Bret Bielema era in a 17-0 win over LSU where they held the Tigers to just 123 total yards and a measly 1.1 yards per rush. First-year DC Robb Smith was highly regarded in coaching circles before he arrived at Arkansas, and he's backed up the expectations. This year the Hogs are No. 23 in total defense, up from No. 76 in 2013. They are also No. 1 in the nation in fourth-down D, allowing only two conversions in 14 attempts. Last season they ranked No. 106, allowing conversations on nine of 14 tries.

JUST A BLIP FOR STANFORD

Stanford is now 5-5 and has lost four of its past six games. The Cardinal hadn't lost that many in a season in six years. I don't buy that this is the backslide to mediocrity some of us anticipated after Jim Harbaugh left for the NFL after the 2010 season. Stanford has had a ton of staff turnover in the past few seasons, but I think David Shaw has helped build too solid a foundation and the brand of Stanford football has been elevated in recruiting circles to a place it had never been before.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE I

Melvin Gordon is averaging 11.1 yards per carry against FBS teams with winning records and 13.4 ypc against ranked teams.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE II

In fourth-quarter action, Mariota leads the nation in QB rating at a sky-high 234.89. The Oregon quarterback is completing 81 percent of his passes and has thrown five TDs and zero picks. Lowest fourth-quarter QB rating among qualifying QBs: Baylor's Bryce Petty, who is completing just 37 percent of his passes (10-of-27) and has a rating of 121.06. Keep this stat in mind in the spring as the NFL Draft process rolls around. Some NFL folks I spoke with for The QB like to focus on fourth-quarter metrics as well a quarterback's numbers in close games and road games to try and get a better read on how they project in the pro game.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE III

Only one program has failed to convert a fourth-down play all season, and it's the same team that is the lone remaining unbeaten from a Power 5 conference. FSU has attempted only two fourth downs. It seems to be in keeping with Jimbo Fisher's style. He attempted only four last season, and the Noles made good on three of them. In 2012, they were 3-of-6 and in 2011, they were just 2-of-7. 

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE IV

I'd pick Bama to beat any college team playing in Tuscaloosa this year. On a neutral field, I'm more skeptical. The reason: QB Blake Sims is completing 67 percent at home with a 188.9 rating, averaging a gaudy 10.8 yards per attempt. On the road, those numbers nose dive to 57 percent, 129.3 and 7.4 ypa.

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.


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