Melvin Gordon Rushes Into Lore: Your Weekly College Football Wrap

Morry Gash/AP Photo

In the old days — like, the really old days — the show that Melvin Gordon put on over the weekend could have been conveyed to the masses only in the lurid prose reserved for the likes of “The Four Horsemen.” His frozen dreadlocks cutting like Samson’s mighty mane through the icy nimbus of a slate-gray Wisconsin afternoon, etc. Unlike the actual Four Horsemen,1 Gordon’s magnum opus in his team’s biggest game of the year fully warrants the hyperbole. Sleeveless in the snow, undaunted by the threat of frostbite or fatigue, Gordon careered through the catacombs of the Cornhuskers defense time and again, a phantom appearing to mere mortals as an evanescent swirl of cardinal and white en route to the end zone. You know, some straight-up Red Grange shit.

These days, of course, television cuts gridiron gods down to human scale, ensuring that any remotely remarkable on-field feat is seen far and wide in roughly the time it takes witnesses in the press box to compose a handful of serviceable tweets. Myth, it turns out, doesn’t fare so well against the instantaneous news cycle.

If you happened to be watching no. 20 Wisconsin’s 59-24 romp over no. 16 Nebraska on ABC, you knew exactly where Gordon stood in relation to the relevant records (school, conference, national) before he broke them. If you were watching a different game, you knew within seconds that said records had fallen, courtesy of in-game updates and the perpetual scroll at the bottom of the screen. If you were attending a wedding, or baking a pumpkin pie, or doing whatever it is people do on fall Saturdays when they’re not watching football, you still could have followed along in more or less real time, courtesy of assorted up-to-the-second mobile streams. If you tuned out entirely in the afternoon, SportsCenter was waiting at home with the highlights, and the stats, and the ramifications for the Heisman race. Grange got Grantland Rice eulogizing the exploits of the “Gray Ghost”; Gordon got NFL stars reacting on Twitter.

Like all masterpieces, Gordon’s tour de force had to be seen to be truly appreciated. But whether we actually saw it or not, what most of us will take away is what remained after the performance was disseminated, discussed, contextualized, and refined into a lovely little lump of media sausage: the box score.

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May that stat line reign for a thousand years. In its first nine games, Nebraska allowed 123.8 rushing yards per game on 3.7 per carry, good enough to put the Cornhuskers among the top 20 run defenses nationally.2 Gordon finished with an FBS-record 408 yards on 16.3 per carry. Before Saturday, Nebraska had allowed five runs of at least 30 yards. Gordon ripped off six runs that gained at least 35 yards. Gordon racked up more yards on the ground in the second quarter alone (189) than any previous offense had in a game against Nebraska this season, and almost did so again in the third quarter, when he piled up 170 yards.

The essential fact that the box score doesn’t illuminate, unless you dig into the play-by-play, is that Gordon did this all in three quarters. He usurped LaDainian Tomlinson in the record books on a 26-yard touchdown run as time expired in the third, took a final bow, and didn’t touch the ball again. He gained more yards on the ground in three quarters, on 25 carries, than one entire FBS team, Wake Forest, has gained all season.

melvin-gordon-wisconsin-nebraska-snow-triMorry Gash/AP Photo

On the year, Gordon leads the nation (obviously) in rushing yards (1,909), rushing touchdowns (23), yards from scrimmage (1,992), and plays covering at least 20 yards (and 30 yards, and 40 yards, and 50 yards). At his current pace of 190.9 yards per game, Gordon will surpass Barry Sanders’s single-season rushing record (2,628) if Wisconsin goes on to play in the Big Ten championship game, which would give the team four remaining contests, including a bowl game. Saturday’s win, their fifth in a row, left the Badgers alone in first place in the B1G’s West Division.

With Gordon’s name appearing alongside the likes of Tomlinson and Sanders, maybe the stat line is all anyone really needs to know to put Gordon’s day into context. On the way to the national mark, Gordon passed 1999 Heisman winner Ron Dayne for the single-game school record, and will almost certainly break Dayne’s single-season rushing mark (2,109) as well, possibly as soon as next weekend against Iowa. Over the past two decades, Wisconsin has boasted an unbroken lineage of wildly productive tailbacks, and from a statistical perspective Gordon is or will soon be looking down on almost all of them. (If, by some miracle, Gordon decides to return for his senior season in 2015, Dayne’s FBS record for career rushing yards [6,397] may be in his sights.)

In the long run, though, prime real estate in the back of the school media guide is hardly a proxy for the kind of indelible spectacle that lends itself to legend, which has very little to do with numbers, and which Gordon’s performance on Saturday fully deserves. Watching him run through opposing secondaries is not like watching productive guys like Brian Calhoun or P.J. Hill or even the plodding Dayne. Like all great players, Gordon leaves the impression that the production is only the residue, not the point.

What I really hope sticks with me from Saturday is the memory of the impressed grunt I emitted on the first of Gordon’s four scores, a 62-yard sprint down the sideline in the second quarter on which he incinerated Nebraska’s pursuit angles and effortlessly hurdled the only available tackler without wavering out of bounds or so much as breaking stride.

That run was the first of eight unanswered Wisconsin touchdowns after the Badgers fell into an early, 17-3 hole, with each adding to the mounting delirium on the scene. (And, yes, on Twitter, too.) For that hour, every time viewers looked up, no. 25 seemed to be off to the races. In that brief window, Gordon transcended context; his performance was, in the most literal sense of the word, unbelievable.

By the time Camp Randall Stadium launched into its ritual “Jump Around” between the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, it was in celebration of a day that was already in the books. Eighty thousand people were there. Countless more watched at home, or from a bar, or on a phone under the table at a wedding. None of them will forget it. Not because they saw a galloping apparition or a colossus striding among men — at 6-foot-1, 213 pounds, Gordon is very much flesh and blood — but because they all know how to recognize greatness when they see it.

Notebook

dak-prescott-msu-alabama-triKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No. 5 Alabama 25, no. 1 Mississippi State 20: Anytime a buzzy Heisman hopeful like Dak Prescott has an afternoon like the one he endured in Tuscaloosa — 27-of-48 passing with three interceptions, good for a season-low efficiency rating of 108.3 — there’s a natural tendency to bust up the bandwagon for scrap and recast the fallen front-runner as an impostor. Given what Mississippi State and its prolific quarterback have already accomplished this season, though, I don’t think it’s fair to abandon the Bulldogs because of a scrappy loss in one of the toughest environments in the sport,3 and at least initially, most voters seem to agree: The Bulldogs fell just three spots Sunday in the AP and Coaches polls, landing at no. 4 in both.

That puts them ahead of one-loss Big 12 contenders TCU and Baylor (which come in at no. 5 and no. 6 in the most recent polls, respectively), as well as Big Ten front-runner Ohio State (no. 7), and if the selection committee agrees when it releases its weekly rankings on Tuesday, it will be good enough to keep MSU in pole position for a playoff spot. The Bulldogs have no more margin for error, but with no. 8 Ole Miss on deck in the Egg Bowl, they still have everything to play for — including an SEC championship, if Auburn manages to upset Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

Although Alabama was favored to win, the afternoon was mainly a familiar exercise in the Crimson Tide reasserting themselves as the domineering, defensively driven overlords they’ve been for the past six years. Mississippi State entered the weekend ranked no. 1 in the SEC in total offense and no. 2 in scoring, and found itself immediately bogged down in quicksand: MSU’s first six possessions resulted in a safety, an interception, and four punts.

By the time the Bulldogs got on the board with a field goal to end the first half, they were only beginning to chip away at a 19-point deficit. After they finally found the end zone, cutting the lead to 19-13 early in the fourth quarter, Bama’s offense responded with a 15-play, 76-yard touchdown drive that featured three third-down conversions, milked more than six minutes off the clock, and extended the lead to 12 points. Nick Saban, of all people, gushed after the game that the march was “probably one of the greatest drives in Alabama history,” which is saying something considering that just seven days earlier, he watched the same offense travel 72 yards in 43 seconds to force an improbable overtime at LSU.

The final stats are skewed a bit by Mississippi State managing to run 88 plays, the most of any opposing offense since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa.4 But every one was a struggle. Every pass was contested, every run found disciplined Crimson Tide defenders waiting in the right place, every completion was met by an immediate tackle that prevented yards after the catch. Prescott had to be perfect, and he wasn’t. Neither was his counterpart, Blake Sims. But Sims did connect on a couple of long passes in the first half, broke a couple of timely runs to keep the sticks moving in the second half, and (unlike Prescott) generally kept the ball out of harm’s way, which is all that’s ever been asked of a Saban quarterback when Saban’s defense is clamping down in the expected fashion. For Bama, the return to the top of the SEC West standings is business as usual: As long as it doesn’t come down to a field goal, the Tide have no glaring weaknesses, and nothing standing in the way of a playoff bid but themselves.

(Charles P. Pierce was on the scene in Tuscaloosa and has more here.)

todd-gurley-acl-triJohn Bazemore/AP Photo

No. 15 Georgia 34, no. 9 Auburn 7: Over the past month, more than a few people suggested that Todd Gurley should have taken his NCAA-mandated four-game suspension as his cue to bail on college and begin prepping for the NFL draft while fully healthy, which looks morbidly prescient after Gurley suffered a torn ACL on Saturday with less than five minutes to play in a blowout. Before the injury, Gurley had racked up 138 yards on 29 carries in his first game back from the suspension, one carry short of his career high. Thus ends, apparently, an enormously promising college career that never had a chance to reach its full potential. Including Georgia’s last three games of 2014 (possibly four, if UGA plays in the SEC championship game), when all is said and done Gurley will have missed all or most of a dozen games over the last two years, the equivalent of a full college season up in smoke.

As for his future, Gurley is reportedly insured for up to $10 million if injuries prevent him from ever playing a down in the NFL, and up to $5 million if injuries cause him to fall out of the first round of the draft. Given the premature retirement of another immensely gifted, injury-plagued SEC back, Marcus Lattimore, the worst-case scenario currently feels like a very real possibility. Still, it’s also possible that Gurley could emerge as the next Willis McGahee, who suffered a devastating knee injury in his last game at Miami, but went on to a productive NFL career with four different teams over 10 years.5 At full speed, though, Gurley is one of those rare talents for whom becoming merely “productive” would represent a great diminishment. Here’s sincerely hoping we get to see him at an elite level again, and sooner rather than later.

No. 3 Florida State 30, Miami 26: What’s to add here? Playing on the road, against an unranked underdog, Florida State fell behind by double digits early, began to close the gap in the second and third quarters, and rallied to win in the fourth — i.e., the exact same script the Seminoles followed in their road wins over NC State and Louisville. Add the harrowing, last-second wins over Clemson and Notre Dame in Tallahassee, and FSU has needed to come from behind in the fourth quarter in four of its nine wins over FBS opponents. At this point, we’ve been over this and over it again: These Noles aren’t the dominant, take-no-prisoners outfit that won the national championship last year, but after Mississippi State’s loss at Alabama, they are the only undefeated team left in the Power 5 conferences.

They’re also back on top of both major polls after five weeks at no. 2, a signal that voters are beginning to give less credence to “style points” than to Florida State’s 26-game winning streak as other contenders continue to bite the dust. Last week, FSU fans were nonplussed after the selection committee demoted the Noles to no. 3 in its weekly rankings, behind then-unbeaten Mississippi State and one-loss Oregon, but the distinction was irrelevant then and may be even more so now: As long as they win out against Boston College, Florida, and the Coastal Division rep in the ACC championship game, the Noles are a lock for the final four, quite possibly as the top seed. This is a maddening team, but given the madness everywhere else, it’s also the safest bet in the nation.

Oregon State 35, no. 6 Arizona State 27: First, the good news: The Pac-12 South is going to be a hell of a lot of fun down the stretch, with four teams — Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, and USC — now effectively tied at the top of the division standings with two conference losses apiece; the year-end rivalry games between Zona-ASU and USC-UCLA will arrive with tangible stakes in play on top of local bragging rights.

The bad news: After the Sun Devils’ #Pac12AfterDark collapse in Corvallis, the eventual winner in the South is very unlikely to be in a position for automatic entry into the final four even with an upset over no. 2 Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. (The Ducks have already wrapped up the North.) If Oregon ends up winning the conference title game anyway, it won’t matter which team came out of the South; the Ducks are firmly in control of their own playoff destiny. Still, the opportunity to stage a conference title game that doubles as a de facto national quarterfinal was an enticing reality that just slipped through the league’s fingers. And if Oregon loses that game, the Pac-12 will be at a very high risk of being shut out of the playoff altogether.

Quote of the Week

“For the kids, I wish we’d won by more.” —TCU coach Gary Patterson, weighing his team’s come-from-behind, 34-30 escape over Kansas against the likelihood that the Horned Frogs will drop in the national rankings following the close call

Superlatives

jalen-ramsey-fsu-miami-triWilfredo Lee/AP Photo

Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State: The Seminoles’ sophomore safety put in all kinds of work against Miami, finishing with one tackle for loss, one forced fumble, four passes broken up, a blocked extra point, a QB hurry, and a game-clinching interception to put another down-to-the-wire victory on ice. (Conveniently, the ACC’s online desk put together a sort of greatest-hits compilation of Ramsey’s night, which isn’t exactly SOP for defensive backs.) As the season has progressed, Ramsey has increasingly occupied the jack-of-all trades nickel position manned last year by departed All-American Lamarcus Joyner, and is beginning to emerge as a disruptive force in the same vein.

James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh: Conner is a leading candidate for this year’s Patrick Willis Trophy, awarded (in spirit) to the player whose individual performance most thoroughly outclasses his team’s performance. On Saturday, Conner churned out 220 yards and four touchdowns on 30 carries against North Carolina, including a go-ahead, 22-yard TD run with less than four minutes to play that saw him run through two arm tackles in the open field and drag a pair of UNC defenders across the goal line …

… only to watch the Pitt defense give up a 75-yard touchdown drive on the ensuing possession to clinch a 40-35 loss, the Panthers’ sixth defeat in their last seven games. In his last three games, Conner has piled up 603 yards and 10 touchdowns on 7.7 yards per carry, and Pitt has lost all three by a combined score of 147-111.

Casey Skowron, PK, Arizona: I don’t get to deploy this rule nearly as often as I’d like — in fact, I just made it up, because it hasn’t applied at any other point this season — but if you score a touchdown in the course of executing your duties as a placekicker, there will always be a place waiting for you in Superlatives.

(Since coming across this video, I’ve resolved to contact the PA announcer who didn’t even wait for the official signal to scream, “TOUCHDOOOOWN, AR–I–ZONAAAA!!!” about recording canned commentary for the triumphs in my daily life, such as “SAVORRRRRRYYYY BEE-EL-TEEEE!!!” Please advise.)

In addition to his terrified kicker speed, Skowron was also 2-for-2 on field goals in the fourth quarter, including the game winner from 47 yards out (also seen above) as time expired, lifting the Wildcats to an improbable, 27-26 victory that kept them in the thick of the race in the Pac-12 South.

Catch of the Year of the Week — Nigel King, Kansas: The Jayhawks couldn’t hold on for the upset against TCU, but for a few minutes on Saturday afternoon, Lawrence, Kansas, was the happiest place on earth after King’s bizarre, tip-drill touchdown gave KU a 10-point lead in the third quarter.

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Combined with last week’s out-of-the-blue win over Iowa State, there’s been more genuine enthusiasm in and around Kansas football in the past 10 days than there had been in the past five years, which is not a bad argument for interim coach Clint Bowen to take over full-time.

Fat Guy(s) of the Week — Wisconsin’s Offensive Line: Who else? From left to right, starters Tyler Marz, Dallas Lewallen, Dan Voltz, Kyle Costigan, and Rob Havenstein tip the scales at a combined 1,605 pounds, the only number that even begins to rival Melvin Gordon’s record-breaking rushing total against Nebraska. The Badgers have steamrolled every FBS opponent this season for at least 264 yards on the ground (including sacks) on a national-best 7.8 yards per carry, and they’ve done it with virtually no threat of a competent passing attack. Defenses can stack 12 guys in the box against this front; the result is always the same, unless it’s worse.

Demerits

Florida’s Kicking Game: Florida’s lo-fi offense deserves its share of the blame for Saturday’s overtime loss to South Carolina as a matter of course, but in this case the Gators actually did just enough offensively to put themselves in position to win: Up 17-10 with under four minutes to play, all Florida needed to effectively put the game out of reach was to knock through an easy, 32-yard field goal to push the lead to 10 points. Naturally, this being Florida football in 2014, the clinching kick was blocked. Three minutes later, still clinging to a 17-10 lead following a defensive stop, the Gators allowed South Carolina to charge through and block a punt with 39 seconds remaining, and the end was nigh.

From there, the Gamecocks punched in the game-tying touchdown and went on to win in the extra session, 23-20, in ostentatiously painful fashion even for Gators fans who thought they no longer possessed the ability to feel.

And by “the end,” I mean THE END, officially: To no one’s surprise, head coach Will Muschamp was given the ax on Sunday morning, effective at the end of the regular season. (More on that development later today on the Triangle.)

Notre Dame’s Defense: Prior to Saturday, Northwestern had managed to score 17, 17, 7, and 9 points in the course of a miserable four-game losing streak that left the Wildcats on the brink of bowl eligibility; they arrived in South Bend having yet to put up 400 yards of total offense in any game this season. Based on that track record, it might have come as a surprise that the Wildcats lit up the Fighting Irish for 43 points on 547 total yards in a wild, overtime upset — but it wasn’t to anyone who’s watched the Notre Dame defense in the same period. Northwestern is the fifth consecutive team to score at least 31 points on the Irish, which officially made it the most generous five-game stretch by any defense in Notre Dame history.

The Universe re: Clemson’s Offense: Clemson spent an entire month waiting for true-freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson to return from a hand injury, only to watch Watson go down again with an apparent knee injury in the first quarter of Saturday’s loss to Georgia Tech. With their phenom indisposed, the Tigers turned back to senior Cole Stoudt, who embraced the opportunity by stinking up the entire city of Atlanta: By the end of the third quarter, Stoudt had completed as many passes to Yellow Jackets defenders (three) as he did to his own receivers on 11 attempts, two of which were returned directly for Georgia Tech touchdowns. Stoudt was benched in the fourth quarter, but it was far too late to stave off a 28-6 thrashing engineered overwhelmingly by the ineptitude of the Clemson offense.

The only solace: Watson is considered “day to day” with a sprained LCL and bone bruise, and could be back in the lineup in two weeks for the season-ending rivalry matchup with South Carolina. If he’s not, given the prowess of Clemson’s defense and the state of the Gamecocks offense, the Tigers might want to consider punting on first down.

Filed Under: College Football, Your Weekly College Football Wrap, College Football Week 12, Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin Badgers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, NCAA Records, Alabama Crimson Tide, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Todd Gurley, injuries, Georgia Bulldogs, Auburn Tigers, Florida State Seminoles, Miami Hurricanes, Arizona State Sun Devils, Oregon State Beavers, SEC, SEC West, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, College Football Playoff, 2014 College Football Playoff, NCAA, NCAAF, Football, Matt Hinton

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton