Keep an eye on Wisconsin's Gordon

MADISON, Wis. -- If you see Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, you won't forget him.

First impressions are his forte. So, too, are big plays.

The first time Jed Kennedy laid eyes on Gordon at Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wis., the coach had a message for Gordon's father, Melvin.

"He's not going to have to pay for [college]," Kennedy said.

Gary Andersen didn't recruit Gordon to Wisconsin. Andersen, in his first year as Badgers coach, saw only a sliver of what Gordon could do this spring because an ankle injury limited the sophomore.

Four games into their first season together, Andersen calls Gordon "right up there with the best I've ever been around."

Most Big Ten fans weren't aware of Gordon last season, as another Badgers back, Montee Ball, a 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist, soaked up the spotlight. Then, Wisconsin played Nebraska in the Big Ten title game.

Nine carries and 216 yards later, everyone wanted to know about No. 25.

Big plays on the big stage. That's Melvin Gordon, who steps onto a huge stage Saturday night at Ohio Stadium as the 23rd-ranked Badgers try to upset No. 4 Ohio State.

A win puts Wisconsin in prime position for another Big Ten title run. If Gordon has a big night -- or, going by his ridiculous season averages, an average night -- he'll put himself in the conversation for national honors, including a certain trophy of a ball carrier in a stiff-arm pose.

"We know it's a big game, and it means a lot, obviously," Gordon said. "You don't just want to be known for nonconference games and things like that. You want to help the team when it really matters."

Gordon is not merely the nation's leading rusher at 156 yards per game -- better than 45 FBS teams, including Notre Dame and 16 squads from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences -- but he's by far the most efficient back in college football.

Gordon averages just 13.25 carries per game, the fewest of any FBS player averaging at least 100 rushing yards, and leads the nation in yards per carry (11.8). This isn't new, as he led all FBS players with 10 yards per carry in 2012.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Gordon's career average of 9.95 yards per rush is the best among active players. His carries average through his first 20 collegiate games is the best for any FBS player (minimum 100 attempts) during the same span in the past 10 seasons, well ahead of Florida's Chris Rainey (8.29).

Quite the first impression, indeed.

"He's turned into a speed back and a power back, and he's a patient back," Andersen said, "which is a pretty vicious combination."

It doesn't take a math degree to figure out Gordon's production stems from the big play. He leads the FBS with six runs of 30 yards or longer and is one of only two players with multiple runs of 70 yards or longer.

In Gordon's past six games, including the 2012 Big Ten championship and 2013 Rose Bowl, he has nine runs of 30-plus yards and five of 50-plus yards.

His string of big plays can be attributed partly to a mindset in which he treated every carry as if it were his last.

"Last year, I didn't know if another carry was coming my way if I didn't make a big play," Gordon said before the season. "It kind of sticks in your head, 'Make a big play. You have to, you have to.' That's my problem."

Gordon's carries total has gone up this season, although he's second on the team behind senior James White, who, by the way, is the nation's active career rushing leader (3,013 yards). But Gordon also sees the bigger picture of his position.

As Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock often tells his group: gain four yards before you gain 40.

"You don't want to be Barry Sanders where you break an 80 [yard run] and then you take five other runs for negative-20," Hammock said. "You're not going to have a performance like [Gordon] did against Nebraska every week, but you have to stay consistent and grind and grind."

Added Gordon: "I tell myself, 'Just get the four yards, and then you'll break it.'"

The fly sweep has led to many of Gordon's big gains this season, much as it did in 2012. But Gordon's real growth has come on the between-the-tackles rushes that are as much a part of Wisconsin football as the "Jump Around" between the third and fourth quarters .

"He's truly shown the ability to have some patience in his game, let the blocks in front of him develop, explode through the holes," Andersen said. "He's been physical in finishing runs. He knows when it's going to be maybe a 1-, 2- or 3-yard gain, and he makes that a 2- or a 3- or a 4-yard gain."

Wisconsin standout running backs come in all shapes and sizes. Ron Dayne was a boulder. So were P.J. Hill and John Clay. Brian Calhoun and Anthony Davis were smaller, speed-driven runners, as is White. Ball transformed his body to find the right balance.

Arguably no Badgers back has walked into Camp Randall Stadium with better natural gifts than the 6-foot-1, 207-pound Gordon. Just 135 pounds as a high school sophomore, Gordon bulked up to around 190 as a senior at Bradford, when he rushed for 2,009 yards and 38 touchdowns on only 158 carries, an average of 12.7 yards per attempt (sound familiar?).

Last year, I didn't know if another carry was coming my way if I didn't make a big play. It kind of sticks in your head, 'Make a big play. You have to, you have to.' That's my problem.

--Melvin Gordon

"He was an absolute freak for us," Kennedy said. "You have guys who are more jukers and guys who are in between the tackles. Melvin's ability to make one cut and not lose any speed is unbelievable. He's a long strider.

"A lot of people compared him to Eric Dickerson with his stride length."

Gordon drew interest from most northern schools and verbally committed to Iowa just before his senior year at Bradford. Kennedy attributes the decision to Gordon's desire to complete the recruiting process so he could focus on football.

But the process wasn't over.

"The big factor was, when he committed to Iowa, Iowa stopped recruiting him," Kennedy said, "and Wisconsin put it into overdrive."

One morning, as Wisconsin was set to host No. 1 Ohio State, Kennedy received a call from then-Badgers coach Bret Bielema. Bradford was practicing for an upcoming playoff game, and Gordon wasn't planning to be at Camp Randall for the game against the Buckeyes.

After talking with Bielema, Gordon made the trip and watched as Wisconsin beat the Buckeyes, the Badgers' first win over a top-ranked team since 1981.

"An unbelievable night, an unbelievable atmosphere, a night game in Madison, and to beat Ohio State," Kennedy said. "It obviously was a sales pitch that you can't rehearse."

Gordon also took several trips to Iowa that fall. His mother, Carmen, liked Iowa's program and the family atmosphere coach Kirk Ferentz preached. Her husband was partial to Wisconsin after watching Dayne's career and the program's ability to produce NFL running backs.

"We had several arguments," Carmen Gordon said. "I wanted Melvin to get out of the state and get the experience of being away from home. My husband always wanted him to be a Badger.

"But when I got to meet the people at Wisconsin, I knew it would be a good place. They saw some talent in Melvin early. I'll always be appreciative of that."

If you've studied Wisconsin's recent star running backs, several themes stand out. One is family.

White's parents travel from their Florida home for almost every game. Ball's folks moved from Missouri to be near their son during his college career. The Gordons also now live closer to Melvin in Waterford, Wis., and Carmen is a fixture at Badgers practices.

"Kids need support and guidance," Carmen said. "College life is different, and if he would have traveled, I would have been there."

Another theme of Badgers backs is humility.

Ball, White and Gordon formed a close bond the past two years, which White and Gordon continue. Both players shared carries in high school -- White with current Cincinnati Bengal and former North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard, Gordon with fellow Wisconsin back Vonte Jackson -- and have handled their 1A/1B roles well this season.

"Melvin's unselfish," Kennedy said, "just a great, great kid. If you ask my two daughters, out of all the kids I've ever coached, who's their favorite, without hesitation, they'll say Melvin Gordon. That has nothing to do with his ability on the field."

The last theme is a relentless drive.

Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes, Gordon's best friend and former high school teammate, remembers competing against Gordon in everything, from workouts to video games. They ran track together, lining up in the 100-meter dash.

"I won 'em all," said Waynes, who clocks 4.3s in the 40-yard dash. "He was never happy about it. He always wants to prove himself to people."

Gordon admits he couldn't sleep one night this summer after struggling during a workout. His failure didn't come as a running back, but as a defensive back trying to mark Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, who just happens to be a first-team All-Big Ten wide receiver.

"I did better that next day," Gordon said.

Gordon grew up watching tapes of Walter Payton with his father, a die-hard Chicago Bears fan. They also studied Barry Sanders.

But there's no doubt about Gordon's favorite back these days.

"One of this idols is Adrian Peterson," Waynes said. "Even in high school, he would watch stuff on him and how he could improve his game."

Like Gordon, Peterson made a strong first impression in college, setting an NCAA freshman rushing record at Oklahoma with 1,925 yards and recording at least 100 yards in each of his first nine games. He led the nation with 339 carries and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting.

Peterson played three years at OU before entering the NFL draft. Gordon, who redshirted in 2010 and is in his third year of eligibility, undoubtedly will generate NFL buzz if he keeps up his production.

"If he's not playing on Sunday," Kennedy said, "I don't know who will."

Carmen Gordon said the NFL discussion will happen at some point, but not now.

"Every kid wants to go to the NFL," she said. "There are steppingstones to get where you want to be, and certain times to focus on certain things. Right now, he needs to focus on developing himself as an individual on and off the field."

Carmen likes that Gordon can learn from friends such as Ball, now with the Denver Broncos, and White, who dealt with stardom early in his Wisconsin career as Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Gordon also is close with Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, whom he met at a high school all-star game in South Carolina in 2010. Abdullah and Gordon compare notes on Big Ten teams and talk about their goals.

"We have our talks that the Big Ten at the moment isn't really getting the pub that it has in previous years," Abdullah said. "When he has a good performance or if I have a good performance, it's overlooked, in a sense. We always feel like, 'Hey, keep working with a chip on your shoulder.'"

Abdullah will watch his friend Saturday night. "Any time he's on the big stage," Abdullah said, "he excels even more."

Gordon can make a national impression at Ohio State. If past performances are any indication, it will be a night to remember.