It wasn't pretty, but the Wisconsin Badgers executed in crunch time Saturday afternoon in Iowa City.
The Badgers' top-ranked defense continued its impressive roll in the first half, forcing Iowa's offense to sputter to just three points. But Jake Rudock and the Iowa offense scored two straight touchdowns in the second half, cutting the Badgers' lead to 19-17 in the fourth quarter.
On the ensuing Wisconsin possession, the Badgers had 3rd-and-13 on their own 32-yard line, the momentum solidly on Iowa's side. Joel Stave had just been called for a delay of game. The Kinnick Stadium crowd was deafening. The game was on the verge of falling out of the Badgers' control.
That's when Melvin Gordon delivered another Heisman moment.
He caught a pass in the flat and took it 35 yards for a first down. Next play: a 10-yard pass from Stave. Then, a patient run over the left tackle for a 23-yard touchdown. The junior tailback had just bailed out the Badgers' stagnating second-half offense, carrying them to a 26-17 lead before they would hold on for a 26-24 win.
That fourth-quarter TD drive is what Heisman Trophy candidates do. #melvingordon— Tom Oates (@TomOatesWSJ) November 22, 2014
Another little bow from Gordon, and that drive was Heisman worthy, for sure. #WISvsIOWA— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) November 22, 2014
A quick note on the QBs
Gary Andersen seems to have the two-QB system figured out. Since being benched, Tanner McEvoy has rushed for 276 yards on 26 carries with four touchdowns -- three in his last four games. Stave had a quiet but efficient day, completing 11 of 14 passes with no touchdowns or picks.
Saturday's victory sets up a Big Ten West title game between Minnesota and Wisconsin next weekend at Camp Randall Stadium. The winner will face Ohio State the following week for the Big Ten championship.
The win should keep the No. 16 Badgers in the 14-to-16 range of the College Football Playoff rankings. If they handle Minnesota and beat Ohio State, they have an outside shot at the cracking the top four. Wisconsin hasn't lost since Oct. 4, and recency could play a major factor in the committee's decisions. It'll take two convincing wins, but a possible 11-2 record compounded with a potential eight-game win streak could do the trick. The hopes are meager, but they exist.
On a day that saw Gordon's FBS record of 408 yards in a single game fall just a week later to Oklahoma freshman Samaje Perine, Gordon set a few more for himself. His 200 yards on 31 carries propelled him to become the quickest tailback in FBS history to 2,000 yards, notching 2K on just 241 rushes. He's now at 2,109 yards on the season, 519 short of Barry Sanders' FBS record. With potentially three games to play, Gordon would need 173 yards in each game to match the mark. Wisconsin fans know that's not much to ask of him.
Gordon also notched his 20th career 100-yard game and his 8.3 career yards per carry is another FBS record. As if that weren't enough, he tied Ron Dayne's Big Ten single-season rushing record with his third straight game of 200-plus yards.
That screams Heisman to me. Oregon's Marcus Mariota completed 24 of 32 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns Saturday against Colorado, adding 73 yards on the ground and a rush touchdown. But as I've said before, college football's best player is in Madison. And a look at Heisman history tells us that Gordon is in prime position.
In 2009, Mark Ingram rushed for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns on 217 attempts. Four years earlier, Reggie Bush, with 200 carries, won the Heisman after totaling 1,740 yards and 16 touchdowns. Badgers fans will remember 1999, when Ron Dayne ran wild for 2,034 yards and 20 TDs on 337 carries.
Gordon has 2,109 yards and 25 TDs on 254 carries, with two or three games left to play.
If there's been a year for a non-quarterback to win the Heisman, this is it. The voters need to answer the bell.
Around the Big Ten
The Badgers, of course, will take on Minnesota next week at Camp Randall in a de facto Big Ten West title game. The Gophers' 28-24 come-from-behind win in Lincoln on Saturday established the high stakes for this one.
Elsewhere, Ohio State survived an early scare from Indiana, winning 42-27 to clinch the Big Ten East title. The winner of the Badgers' tilt with Minnesota will face the Buckeyes Dec. 6 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
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Next up is Minnesota for a berth in the Big Ten title game. Quarterback Mitch Leidner has thrived in Minnesota's read-option offense as one of the nation's more efficient dual-threat QBs. And Leidner is rolling -- he rushed 22 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns Saturday against Nebraska.
Joining Leidner in Minnesota's backfield is David Cobb. Often overshadowed by the Big Ten's trio of top-tier running backs -- Gordon, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Indiana's Tevin Coleman -- Cobb is a top-10 rusher nationally, with five games of 145-plus yards this season.
But Minnesota's efficient offense will meet one of the nation's best defenses. The Badgers rank top-five nationally in total defense and in points allowed, giving up just 16 points per game.
Right now, the Badgers boast both the most talented tailback and the best offensive line in college football -- a deadly combination. They'll be tough to beat, especially at home, but Minnesota's efficient offense and powerful defense -- allowing just over 22 points per game -- make the Gophers an opponent that can't be taken lightly.
After trouncing Nebraska, Saturday's narrow win in Iowa City brought the Badgers back down to earth.
But with a shot to play for the Big Ten title and to keep their slim College Football Playoff hopes afloat, next week's meeting with Minnesota will stand as the big one.