When Northwestern prepared for its game at Wisconsin earlier this month, one play the Wildcats knew to look out for defensively was the Melvin Gordon jet sweep package.
But like other teams before and after, Northwestern found out that knowing that play is coming and stopping it are two very different things.
“Most teams have game-planned for it, and so did we,” Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week. “We went 0-for-2 on it.”
Those two misses happened to come on the two biggest plays of Wisconsin’s 35-6 win on Oct. 12. In the first quarter, the Badgers used the sweep as part of a play-action, 63-yard touchdown pass to Jared Abbrederis. Gordon got the handoff in the second quarter and took it 71 yards for the score.
Halloween isn’t until tomorrow, but the Gordon jet sweep series has been terrorizing opponents for about a year now and ranks as arguably the single most devastating play in the Big Ten.
“It’s always fun running that play in a game,” Gordon told ESPN.com. “If teams don’t get the right guys in the right place, you can break it for a long one.”
What we describe as the jet sweep series is really an option play. The Badgers can go at least three different ways with it, and they’re often highly successful.
It all begins with Gordon, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, lining up as a wide receiver. Before the snap, he goes into motion. If the quarterback hands Gordon the ball, he already has a head of steam, and Wisconsin usually places two tight ends on the play side along with the other wide receiver, who becomes a downfield blocker.
“It comes down to you and the safety and the cornerback,” Gordon said. “And 95 percent of the time, the tight end or the receiver is going to get the block. There’s always one guy you’ve got to make guy miss, but as a running back, you’ve got to take pride in making that one guy miss.”
Gordon is one of the best in the Big Ten at doing just that. With his speed, elusiveness and vision, getting him on the edge with a convoy of blockers is a frightening proposition for defenses.
Gordon gained 113 of his 193 rushing yards at Arizona State earlier this season on jet sweep carries, including an 80-yard touchdown run. A week after the package worked for two big scores against Northwestern, it resulted in a 28-yard Gordon run to set up a touchdown at Illinois.
“He gets out on the perimeter right now,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “You have to try to read and get to the perimeter as fast as you can. If you don’t, you’re going to have problems with that play.”
If Gordon were solely running a glorified end-around, then defenses could easily stop it. But Wisconsin also can use Gordon as a decoy and either A) hand it to James White, one of the most accomplished running backs in Big Ten history or B) throw downfield in almost certain single coverage to Abbrederis. On the 63-yard touchdown throw to Abbrederis versus Northwestern, quarterback Joel Stave faked to Gordon and then to White before stepping up in the pocket for the throw. Abbrederis was running free behind the Wildcats’ safety.
“It’s not an option play, but there are three different options off of it, and you’ve got to play each one the same way,” Fitzgerald said. “You have to stay disciplined with your eyes on the back end. On the big play to Jared, we did not get our safety rotation the right way.”
The Badgers began incorporating the jet sweep in the middle of last season as a way to get Gordon -- then the third-string running back behind White and Montee Ball -- involved in the offense. Then they broke it out in a big way against Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game. Gordon opened Wisconsin’s flood of scoring with a 56-yard touchdown off the jet sweep and ended up with 216 yards on only nine carries.
When Gary Andersen took over as head coach following the Rose Bowl, he and new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig knew not to fix what wasn’t broken.
“Andy had that play in his system prior [to Wisconsin], and without question, we looked at the success it had,” Andersen said. “It’s something Melvin is very good at, and we try to use kids’ talents to give them the opportunity to succeed at the highest level.”
Gordon said he expected the package to remain in the playbook for the new coaches, but he’s been surprised at how much they’ve used it this season. Other teams are not surprised to see the formation.
“Since the beginning of year, every time I go out there I hear them yelling ‘25! 25!’” said Gordon, who wears that number. “They’re checking and they’re moving around. I’m hearing them, so obviously they’re preparing for it.”
But as teams keep finding out, preparing for the jet sweep play and stopping it are two very different things.