As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.
Can Melvin Gordon do it all all year long?
While the Badgers have lost a lot of players from a team that was a few breaks away from a really special season a year ago, one of the few returners has Wisconsin fans really, really excited. Gordon, one of the nation’s top 10 rushers a season ago and the second-leading rusher in the Big Ten, has high hopes. High, Heisman-level hopes.
But as big as the expectations are for Gordon, there’s a pretty key aspect of the Badgers’ running game that will be a heck of a lot different from last season. James White has moved on, and while the loss of a No. 2 back might not seem like that big of a deal to some teams, particularly when the No. 1 back is receiving Heisman buzz, it is a very big deal for Wisconsin. While Gordon tore things up, rushing for 1,609 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns, White was equally effective, rushing for 1,444 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The combined numbers are staggering, and it’s a testament to not only the great Wisconsin running back tradition but also the annually amazing offensive lines up in Madison. There’ll be a lot of replacement along that offensive line this season, though given the track record, that’s not really expected to be a detriment for this team. What could be, though, is the loss of White, who not only served as an equally potent part of that 1-2 punch but also had big days when Gordon was off at times last season. Six times in 2013 Gordon and White both went over 100 yards. But White stepped up in a big way in the latter half of the season. In four of the Badgers’ final six games, Gordon failed to hit 100 yards. But White rushed for 100-plus yards in all but one of those games.
And, while Gordon has proved himself one of the premier returning running backs in the country, there’s one part of his game that will need a lot of work if he is going to fill the void left by White. That’s the passing game, where White finished last season as one of Wisconsin’s better pass-catchers. He caught 39 passes for 300 yards. Gordon caught one pass for 10 yards. So in addition to making sure he stays consistently productive on the ground throughout the season, Gordon will have to catch more than just one pass this season if the Badger running game isn’t going to fall off from last season’s insane production.
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But if anyone can do that, it seems like Gordon is a prime candidate. He averaged 7.8 yards per carry last season, and considering he did it with 206 carries, that’s mighty impressive. Of the players who ranked in the top 40 in yards per carry last season, only eight also ranked in the top 40 in carries. Gordon was one of them. And Gordon’s “drop off” last season might need a little explaining. He only hit the 100-yard mark twice after October, but he turned in rushing totals of 86 yards against Brigham Young and 91 yards against Penn State. So he was just 23 yards away from making it four 100-yard outputs after October. It was likely only because his first two months were so exceptional that the latter half of the season seemed such a downgrade. Gordon averaged a walloping 144.6 yards per game over the Badgers’ first seven games.
Plus, though White is gone, it’s not like Gordon will be the only guy Wisconsin can hand the ball to. Corey Clement, who was a freshman last season sitting on the depth chart behind Gordon and White, managed to impress in a big way. He only appeared in eight games, but he went over 100 yards in three of those and ran for 83 yards in another. That’s as a No. 3 running back. Granted, a lot of those carries came in blowout wins, but for a third-string back to total 547 yards and seven touchdowns in his freshman year is a very positive sign as Clement aims to move into the No. 2 spot this season.
So can Gordon string a full season of excellence together? It sure looks like he can, and despite a pretty good amount of change in that running game, it looks like Wisconsin will have a successful year coming out of the backfield. But then what else is new?