You have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a year in which a Wisconsin running back failed to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season.
That year Anthony Davis racked up a mere 973 yards on the ground. Since then, Brian Calhoun, P.J. Hill, John Clay, James White, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon have reached the 1,000-yard threshold. Behind burly offensive linemen, many of whom now play in the NFL, Wisconsin became known for its run-first mentality.
This fall redshirt junior Gordon will begin his first season as the Badgers’ feature back and is appearing on several preseason Heisman Award watch lists. Though Gordon led the team in rushing last year, White received more carries and started 12 of Wisconsin’s 13 games.
In his first year of extensive action, Gordon racked up over 1,600 rushing yards while averaging nearly eight yards per carry. He scored 12 touchdowns and had five 100-yard games.
Gordon’s monster season was a tale of two halves, however. In his first seven games, he ran for 1,012 yards on 107 carries for an average of 9.5 yards per carry. He also scored 11 touchdowns and was a potential Heisman candidate.
But over the final six games, Gordon ran for 597 yards on 99 carries, dropping to an average of six yards per carry. He scored only one touchdown and all the Heisman talk disappeared.
Of course, Gordon’s second half numbers weren’t awful by any means. The decline can also be explained due to an uptick in White’s production. Over the final six games, White recorded five 100-yard games, including a 205-yard effort against Indiana.
With White now in the NFL, the Badgers need to replace his role in the passing game. White served as an effective receiver out of the backfield, catching 39 passes. Gordon caught just one.
While Gordon may not have been a dual-threat running back in the traditional sense, he caused matchup problems in other ways. Head coach Gary Andersen used Gordon as the focal point of the jet sweep package, a way to get Gordon and White on the field simultaneously.
The package was used in multiple formations, coming out of the shotgun or under center with either Joel Stave or White as the quarterback. Gordon would usually be on the outside, coming in motion before the snap. From there, Wisconsin could pass, run up the middle or hand off to an already-at-full-speed Gordon for an end around. Some of Gordon’s biggest runs came out of the jet sweep.
To help replace White, the Badgers will rely on sophomore Corey Clement to play an increased role. As a true freshman last year, Clement racked up 547 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging over eight yards per carry. Those numbers are comparable to Gordon’s redshirt freshman season of 2012, when he totaled 621 yards and averaged 10 yards per carry.
Both of these running backs complement each other well. Gordon is quicker than Clement while Clement is stockier and more powerful. However, don’t give them the limiting labels of Thunder and Lightning—they’re both complete players with multifaceted games. Having each in the backfield will give Wisconsin another superb ground attack and will likely continue that 1,000-yard runner streak to 10 seasons.