Wisconsin has had a lot of watershed rushing performances over the years, and Purdue has borne the brunt of some of the best.
In 1999, Ron Dayne took control of the Heisman Trophy race by rushing for 222 yards against the Boilermakers, outshining fellow Heisman favorite Drew Brees and providing the world with one of the all-time man-amongst-boys stiff arms.
In 2010, Wisconsin's 34-13 win over Purdue announced Montee Ball as a premier running back, with 21 carries, 127 yards and two touchdowns to spark a streak of four games with 20+ carries and 125+ yards to close the season. Ball would go on to set one career high with 223 yards rushing and three touchdowns against Purdue in 2011, and another with 247 yards and three touchdowns to set the Big Ten touchdown record in 2012. His final performance provided the world with an ode-worthy cutback that stopped time itself. [warning: I GET A GOOD FEELING YEAH].
We may have just seen another watershed performance. For Melvin Gordon, certainly. Heading into the game, Gary Andersen called Gordon the "fly sweep guy" when asked why the sophomore wasn't getting more touches in the running game. Gordon proved he was something more Saturday, slipping tackles and showing power on all three of his touchdown runs, all of which were designed to go inside (don't fault Gordon for having the ability to bounce out his third-quarter 15-yarder).
To single out Gordon, as magnificent as he was, is a slight to James White, however. White fell just two yards short of Gordon's rushing yardage on the same number of carries, after all. White's game is different. His nifty footwork and acceleration get him to the second level and beyond almost as well as Gordon's reckless speed. The reason your jaw isn't dropping is because White has been doing his thing for years. His game didn't evolve the way Ball's did, and his "wow" performances usually coincided with big games by Clay, Ball or Gordon.
But make no mistake, White is one of the most explosive runners Wisconsin has ever had. Among the school's top 10 career rushers, White's 6.2 yards per carry is tops. In fact, he is on pace to post a better YPC in three of his four seasons than any of the other nine members in the top 10 posted in any single season, with just one exception. Ron Dayne's 6.5 YPC as a freshman just edges White's 6.4 YPC in 2012. We would be talking about White as one of Wisconsin's all-time great home run threats if he wasn't paired with a man on track to become perhaps the best ever.
And that's what marked Saturday as a true watershed. It wasn't just Gordon's emergence as a back for any situation, but the realization that White and Gordon together give Wisconsin a dynamic it has never had and will be lucky to ever have again. That's two complete backs with the ability to score every time they touch the ball, rotating to keep each other fresh, flummoxing defenses when they appear on the field together, adding up to something much greater than their parts. Gordon needs White and vice versa, and together they're the best rushing tandem in the country.
Thanks due to Purdue for once again being the proving ground of Wisconsin's self-worth. Ryan Shazier and Ohio State should be a tougher challenge this week. The Buckeyes enter Saturday night's Leaders Division throwdown with the nation's No. 9 rush defense. The talent is obvious in Ohio State's front seven, and it's not as raw as it was entering the season.
Then again, Ball had no trouble piling up yards against a more experienced defense during last year's overtime loss. The Buckeyes have also yet to truly face Gordon, who had just one carry for a 1-yard loss last season. A defensive front featuring six new starters hasn't gone up against a rushing offense better than 97th in the FBS in yards per game. Saturday will be a talent shock for the Buckeyes.
That's the idea, anyway. Beating Ohio State in Columbus is a lot to ask, but I've got this hype train going as fast as Gordon's legs will take it at this point. If all else fails, Wisconsin must dominate Ohio State on the ground this weekend. And if the Badgers win, you'll almost certainly have an all-time performance by Gordon and White to thank.
More from Bucky's 5th Quarter:
- Wisconsin football notebook: Ohio State game could carry heavy Big Ten implications
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- Wisconsin football schedule: Getting to know Ohio State
- Wisconsin's injury results crucial for Ohio State game
- Badgers in the NFL: Week 3
- Jake Dowell's emotional story to be featured on ESPN's 'E:60' tonight