It won’t come as a surprise to Big Ten football fans, but 2013 is shaping up to be another banner year running the football for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Of course, when was the last time the Badgers didn’t have a banner year running the football?
There was a minimal amount of concern heading into this campaign after Montee Ball — one of Wisconsin’s all-time leading rushers — departed for the NFL. But the experienced James White and the explosive Melvin Gordon have teamed up to be the dynamic duo for a Wisconsin team that is slowly creeping into position for an at-large bid to a BCS bowl game.
Asked who he would pick if he had to vote for one of the two in hypothetical Big Ten player-of-the-year balloting, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen laughed out loud at the impossibility of making such a choice.
"I'm glad I'm not making that decision,” Andersen said during Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference. “That's a very difficult decision to make. As you go through it, you sit back and you look, and what James has done for so many years and what he's done for this team for so many years, and then Melvin having the year that he's having. They're two very, very good, talented young men that have made some terrific plays throughout this year. If they're on that ballot and they have that opportunity and one of them wins it, that'd be fantastic. But it's a tough call. You'd have to flip a coin on that one."
Opposing defenses, however, haven’t had the luxury of flipping a coin and having to deal with just one of the backs. The tandem has combined to shred defenses for a combined 2,528 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns in 10 games this season. If White and Gordon were their own NCAA football team, only 13 other squads would have more rushing yards on the 2013 season. Only 28 would have more touchdowns.
And that’s notable because it’s not like White and Gordon are the only ones who’ve carried the ball for the Badgers this season. Freshman Corey Clement — the third-string back — has rushed for 523 yards this season, rushed in for seven touchdowns and has had three 100-yard rushing days of his own.
“I've been around some talented young backs, but Corey's mental ability to be able to handle it from summer through camp through the early games when he was getting a lot of carries and playing and scoring touchdowns, gaining yards, and going through the middle of the season where some games he didn't get a snap, and then to walk in there last week and do what he did and be as prepared as he is, he's a full package,” Andersen said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “I would say no, I haven't been around a young man that is that well rounded mentally and physically at his young age.”
Clement’s big days include the most recent Wisconsin victory, a 51-3 thumping of Indiana last Saturday. If quarterback Joel Stave handed you the ball Saturday against the Hoosiers, you were going to have a big day. As a team, the Badgers racked up 554 yards rushing against Indiana’s notoriously terrible defense (or 100 yards fewer than Purdue has run for all season). White led the way with 208, Gordon ran for 147, Clement racked up 109. Even wide receiver Jared Abbrederis carried the ball three times for 86 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
And it could be another one of those kinds of days this week. While Minnesota is hardly in the same position Indiana is — the Gophers are in the midst of a dream season and enter the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe on a four-game win streak — the rush defense has allowed its share of big games. The Gophers have held opponents under 189 rush yards in just two of its six Big Ten games, including days of 189, 227 and 190 in their last three contests.
So while Andersen might not envy those who have to pick which of Wisconsin’s star runners is the superior back, at least he has the luxury of not having to try and defend them.
“I don't know if you could ever guess the first year you'd be that explosive on the offensive side of the ball,” he said Monday. “It's been great to see those big plays continue to take place. ... I don't think I would have put those numbers on it if I was going to seal a jar and put the numbers I thought it would be at the end.
“I'd probably be off.”