Gordon gallops into record books with game for the ages
MADISON, Wis. -- The chant began from the highest seats of Wisconsin's student section Saturday night, slowly trickling downward until it spilled into the front rows and spread -- expansively, triumphantly -- across Camp Randall Stadium. On a day in which 80,539 people witnessed perhaps the greatest display by a running back in the history of college football, acknowledging the man responsible seemed the only appropriate thing to do.
And so, with No. 20 Wisconsin well on its way to a 59-24 decimation of No. 16 Nebraska, the rhythmic calls poured forth.
MEL-VIN GOR-DON! MEL-VIN GOR-DON!
Moments earlier, Gordon had zipped into the end zone on a breathtaking 26-yard touchdown run as the third quarter expired, a heavy snowstorm pounding the turf around him. The play call, Fire Zulu Curve, was designed for Gordon to wade through a small hole behind his fullback on the weak side of the field. In typical Gordon fashion, however, he made the ordinary look magnificent, cutting past three would-be tacklers, leaping toward the end zone and into the record books.
When the play was over, Gordon had broken the single-game FBS rushing record and earned his last carry. The final total: 25 carries, 408 yards and four touchdowns. Former TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson's record of 406 yards, set Nov. 20, 1999, against Texas-El Paso, was now only second best.
Gordon jumped into the arms of teammates. He smiled wide. Then, he heard the announcement declaring the record over the public address system. He stuck his red mouth guard in his teeth, pumped his left fist and held up the Wisconsin "W" with his hands as the camera panned on him. The chants continued.
MEL-VIN GOR-DON! MEL-VIN GOR-DON!
It was, quite simply and without hyperbole, an evening and a performance for the ages.
"I didn't even know I was close to a record like that," Gordon said. "I was kind of just running to win. . . . I knew they would all sell out going to the left, so I just pressed it a little bit, cut back and just made it happen."
Badgers coach Gary Andersen, sitting next to Gordon at the post-game podium as he described his record-setting run, quickly interjected.
"Yeah, just made it happen," Andersen deadpanned. "See how easy it is?"
Few players, if any, could make something look as easy as Gordon did against a Cornhuskers team that entered with one of the best run defenses in the nation. And given the circumstances, the opponent and the mind-numbing cold, it made Gordon's performance somehow seem even more remarkable.
The winner of Saturday's game would be in prime position to capture the Big Ten West division with two regular-season games remaining. The loser would have no choice but to regroup and prepare for a second-tier bowl game that fell well below either team's expectations. On top of that, the game time temperature of 26 degrees was the coldest Badgers game at Camp Randall Stadium in 50 years -- since a Nov. 21, 1964 contest against Minnesota (11 degrees). Snow flurries began dancing through the stadium early in the second quarter Saturday and never relented.
Even more unforgiving was supposed to be Nebraska (8-2, 4-2), which had not allowed more than 188 yards rushing in a game the entire season and entered the day ranked 19th nationally in rushing defense (123.8 yards per game). No matter. Gordon eclipsed that mark in the first half and entered halftime with 238 yards rushing.
"I give Wisconsin a lot of credit," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who described his team's tackling as atrocious. "Gordon is a hell of a back, but we played a big part in that, too."
Gordon's strides churned through Nebraska defenders and the accumulating snow. The 6-foot-1, 213-pound redshirt junior ran for gains of 42, 62, 44, 43 and 68 yards. He powered past the first wave of Nebraska defenders, only to juke or leap over the second wave. He was a Heisman Trophy candidate showing why he bypassed the NFL Draft -- to lead his team as the featured tailback and perform at his best on the biggest stage.
"There is just something about Melvin," said Badgers quarterback Joel Stave, who completed 7 of 11 passes for 46 yards with a touchdown. "His breakaway speed, his balance. I don't know if he used to do this, but that little jump that he does when people get near his feet, he always lands back on his feet. He's a special player."
Many will forget that Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) fell behind Saturday 17-3 early in the second quarter before the Badgers scored 56 unanswered points and ran for 581 yards as a team. Even more people are likely to forget Gordon fumbled twice in the game -- a rarity for a player who prides himself on ball security and had not fumbled in his college career before this season.
"It was kind of depressing," Gordon said. "No running back likes to fumble. It's probably one of the worst things you can do. To have two in a game, it really tears at the confidence out there."
Despite the fumbles, Gordon -- who now has rushed for 1,909 yards with 23 touchdowns -- did not let his frustration show. Instead, he helped Wisconsin turn a two-touchdown deficit into a rout by putting together a series of eye-popping statistics. Consider these numbers:
-- Gordon's 189 yards in the second quarter broke the school record for most in a quarter.
-- He ran for more yards in one day than Wake Forest's entire team had through the first 10 games this season (341 yards).
-- He surpassed former Badgers Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne's 1996 single-game program rushing record of 339 yards, then beat Indiana tailback Anthony Thompson's Big Ten record of 377 set in 1989. That set the stage for the final carry, with Gordon sitting on 382 yards, to break Tomlinson's mark.
Soon after, Tomlinson himself couldn't help but marvel at Gordon's achievement and chimed in on Twitter: "That kid (Melvin Gordon) bad!! Congrats on breaking the NCAA single game rushing record. #respect"
"It's a great feeling to see your hard work pay off," Gordon said. "My teammates were so excited, too, they got me amped up. I was trying to hold back a little bit. But after they told me, man, I felt so good."
Andersen pulled Gordon for the fourth quarter, hugged him and told him how proud he was of the accomplishment. And when Saturday's game was over, Gordon soaked in the scene at midfield, snow clinging to his hair. Teammates patted Gordon on the back, then fell to the turf and made snow angels.
"I'm glad the atmosphere was the way it was with the snow falling," Badgers left tackle Tyler Marz said. "It was a beautiful scene."
Nothing more beautiful, of course, than Gordon galloping his way into the record books.
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