On Wisconsin: Melvin Gordon and His Madison Proving Ground

Andy Manis/AP

Wisconsin’s marching band is a highly ritualized outfit, famed for its postgame celebrations that keep thousands of fans in Camp Randall Stadium for close to an hour after home games. There’s also a lesser-known tradition, one you might not have heard about if you haven’t happened to watch on the right weekends. It’s called the On Wisconsin Finale, an annual display staged during halftime of each season’s final home game:

The routine remains basically unchanged. While playing a maestoso version of On Wisconsin, the band moves into a series of vertical lines. On cue, the lines flow rapidly into the letters “ON WIS.” As the arrangement nears its conclusion, the musicians high-step toward the audience. There is a long drum roll and a knee bow as the public address announcer assures, “We never say goodbye, simply we’ll see you next year, and ON WISCONSIN!”

We don’t know that we’ve seen Melvin Gordon’s final turn on Camp Randall’s turf. The Badgers running back hasn’t said good-bye, nor has he said that we’ll see him back next year. The freshly minted Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year has avowed publicly that he won’t decide whether to enter the NFL draft until his redshirt junior season ends, and with the Badgers set to face Ohio State in the conference championship game before playing in a presumably prestigious bowl, there’s time. But last Saturday, in Wisconsin’s regular-season finale versus Minnesota, the delay felt academic.

Though Gordon didn’t participate in the pregame Senior Day festivities, where schools occasionally allow surefire early draft exits to take a final bow as underclassmen, he took the stage during the postgame victory ceremony alongside several senior teammates who were giving speeches. The Kenosha native’s eyes stayed busy, surveying the crowd over and over as though by scanning each row of bleachers individually he could commit the entire stadium, the entire night, to memory.

Gordon told Grantland the next day that he’d had a simpler primary objective up there: finding his mom in the joyous throng. The pair hadn’t managed to meet up in the postgame crush on the field, and he wanted to get a photo taken. But he admitted to spending at least a few minutes making flashbulb memories. “I was just happy,” he said the day after the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.1 “Just trying to see all their faces.”

As places to sear into one’s brain go, Camp Randall’s a pretty good one. The stadium is nearly 100 years old, hemmed in on one side by the cathedral aura of the Wisconsin Field House. The Badgers take the field by running beneath rows of numbers far above that mark each of the program’s conference championships, Rose Bowl appearances, and so on. There are names on the walls, too, including that of Ron Dayne, whose kids are now ardent Gordon fans, and whose single-season conference rushing record Gordon broke on Saturday afternoon. On the eve of the conference title game, Gordon has 2,260 rushing yards and 26 rushing touchdowns to his name.

More flashes: Gordon tweaked an ankle late against the Gophers, briefly scaring the stuffing out of everyone present and leaving Corey Clement, another head on Wisconsin’s rushing Cerberus, to close out the meaningful snaps, but he was back on the field for the final downs in the victory formation. There was an immediate flurry of activity beneath the student section as Bucky Badger hoisted the Axe2 and passed it to the players. The entire team surrounded the totem until all that was visible was the ax head, bobbing above a turbulent swirl of white helmets. Seniors took turns miming chopping down the goalposts, front-row fingers skimmed its outlines, and Gordon trailed behind his teammates, stretching for high fives from reaching fans. A dance battle broke out near the end zone.

The last-hurrah motif lingered in the postgame press conference, where head coach Gary Andersen spoke in era-ending terms of his star tailback: “It’s been a joy to coach Melvin. He’s a young man that I will use as an example for the rest of my coaching career.”

Picture a darkened briefing room and the whirr of a newsreel projector, and imagine a stern scientist’s voice intoning, “MEET THE WISCONSIN RUNNING BACK.” Because the thing you need to understand going in is that it’s quite difficult to stand out at a position like running back on a team with a perpetually pronged ground game. Star Badgers rushers are nothing new, and they tend to be deployed in multi-packs.

We’ve previously compared Wisconsin’s ground game to a Skee-Ball loader: remove one and score some points with it, and another smoothly clacks into position to take its place. The current leading tandem of Gordon and Clement was preceded in 2013 by Gordon and James White (a fourth-round Patriots draft pick); in 2012 by White and Montee Ball (a second-round Broncos pick);3 and in 2011 by Ball, White, and some new kid named “Russell Wilson.”4 You get the idea.

All of which is to say that the presence of another excellent running back at Wisconsin is no surprise; by extension, Gordon’s ability to distinguish himself here is all the more remarkable. And he has managed to separate from more than just history, besting a crowded field of standout 2014 Big Ten backs that includes Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Minnesota’s David Cobb, Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford, and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah.

It’s been a while coming. When Gordon comments on the occasional impatience a waiting Clement must process — “He obviously wanted more carries, but we’ve all been through that. That’s how it works” — he speaks from plentiful experience of biding his time, absorbing habits from White and Ball and taking his chances when he got them. “Montee was probably the best practice player I’ve ever been around,” Gordon said. “He taught me little things. How to read linebackers when you’re running, what type of moves to make when you’re in this position or that spot or this spot.”

For Gordon, it’s as though all of the frustrations accumulated while waiting are being converted into kinetic energy on the field. His 2014 campaign has featured an almost unbroken streak5 of 100- and 200-yard games on the ground.6 And last month, he secured his place on every year-end highlight reel with his game against Nebraska, an experience that carried to its logical if gruesome conclusion the Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote maxim that if something is funny once, it’s funny every time:

That’s Gordon running for 408 yards over, around, and through a Nebraska defense that we now cringe to even hear called “once-vaunted.” He broke the school record. He broke the Big Ten record. He broke LaDainian Tomlinson’s single-game FBS rushing record that had stood for 15 years, against better competition, and in just three quarters.7 It’s been a long time since we’ve spent that big of a chunk of a football game feeling openly sorry for one team. If that game had been a math test, Gordon and his offensive line — each member of which you’ll find somewhere on the Big Ten’s all-conference rosters — might have been chided for writing down all of the solutions but not showing their work.

melvin-gordon-wisconsin-minnesota-2-triAndy Manis/AP

None of that, however spectacular, did anything to retroactively eliminate a midseason loss to Northwestern, but all of it helped the Badgers enter the final week of the regular season staring down a fight with Minnesota for the right to face Ohio State in the conference championship. The Gophers are a great aesthetic match for Wisconsin, another classic Big Ten outfit populated with large smashy types who prefer to run to score, and prefer that you not score at all, neighbor; and indeed, it took the home team a little while to hit the end zone. A muffed punt at the end of the Badgers’ first drive put the Gophers up 7-0, and while Wisconsin’s second drive contained a play so beautiful we want to put it in a full-color plate in a textbook, with the Badger line opening up a veritable boulevard for Gordon by sweeping Minnesota’s defenders into diagonal lines like they were conscripting them into the marching band, the Badgers ended up settling for a field goal and before long were down two scores, 17-3.

This was about the time that Joel Stave, whose longest pass of the year in all the games leading up to this one was 47 yards, connected with Alex Erickson for a 70-yarder. Wisconsin’s first touchdown of the day against Minnesota came three plays later, a rare scoring catch for Gordon, just his third of the season.8 On Monday, Andersen, a former defensive coordinator, sounded almost sympathetic discussing Gordon’s power as an object of misdirection. “You’ve only got 11 guys [on defense], so you’ve got to pick your spots.”

Distance-wise, it was a bit of a slog for Gordon, who’s known with ample reason for his field-spanning breakaway charges. He exited play at Camp Randall with 151 yards on the ground, good for about 5.2 per carry, with a long run of 24 and two scores. You know, a slow night. His coach wasn’t complaining. “The flashy runs,” said Andersen in his postgame press conference, “everybody sees those, time and time and time again. The one that I look at is when he’s on the line of scrimmage and you need to get four yards, and he’s getting five or six.”

Had Gordon been in the room at that moment, he might have beamed. He says that he ignores his numbers as much as he can, but to be lauded as a worker bee is the highest possible praise for a guy who, when asked about his budding legacy, says, “Being one of the hardest workers, and one of the best backs, to ever come through Wisconsin.” In that order? “Yup.”

melvin-gordon-wisconsin-triMorry Gash/AP

Though Gordon is now a top draft prospect and a leading Heisman Trophy contender, the idea that he could even be an FBS football player came to him relatively late in the game. Had he stayed 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds, he says he might have chosen to run track, or pursued an alternate-universe dream career in architecture. A growth spurt hit instead, and he set his sights on D-II football, attending his first camp at Winona State as a high school sophomore and surprising himself with his performance. “People told me I couldn’t do this or couldn’t do that, and then at camp I just balled out, and I went” — he smiles and nods to himself here, conspiratorially — “Oooookay, maybe I’ve got a shot at D-I?” Today, Gordon’s listed at 6-1 and 213 pounds, a little taller and slimmer than his predecessors, a little less like a Skee-Ball and a little more balletic in his runs.

This specific part of Gordon’s origin story explains so much: about how he says he’s most proud of his emotional growth as a player this year; about his training habits, which became the stuff of team lore in the months after he elected to bypass the 2014 NFL draft and return to Madison, even though running back shelf lives are famously short and a satisfactory slot in the picking order seemed certain; about the way he runs, period, seemingly heedless in the moment of the brief timeline his career will span. It’s not that god-awful hoary coachspeak chestnut of a Chip on the Shoulder, exactly, nor is it precisely self-doubt. It’s almost like he’s trying to convince himself, more than anyone else, that he’s capable of greatness.

“I don’t feel like I’m top-notch at anything I do,” said Melvin Gordon with a straight face as he prepared to head back to the game that first put his name on your television ticker. “I’m not overly fast, I’m not overly strong,” said the national leader in rushing touchdowns and yards per game. “My strong suits, I can work on those too,” said the guy who has us convinced that, no matter how many NFL scouts turn up in Indy this weekend, he’ll be running for himself.

One final, brazen admission came with a shrug and a little laugh, and a concession that maybe there’s some kind of sweet spot at the crossroads of speed and strength that he happens to inhabit: “I mean, I’ve got athletic ability. I’m fast enough.” Enough for 2,000 yards and then some in 12 games, anyway, and many more just over the horizon.

Filed Under: College Football, Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin Badgers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Paul Bunyan's Axe, Rivalry Trophies, Sports Rivalries, Big Ten, Big Ten Championship Game, Ohio State Buckeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Gary Andersen, Montee Ball, NFL Draft, 2014 Heisman Trophy, Heisman Trophy, Football, NCAA, NCAAF, Holly Anderson

Holly Anderson is a staff writer at Grantland.

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