Gordon scores 4 TDs, helps Wisconsin outrun Illinois
Madison, Wis. — Melvin Gordon stumbled through the hole with a couple awkward steps, appearing as if he was about to fall face first into the turf.
Somehow, he kept his balance. Seconds later, Gordon completed his dash down the sideline for a 46-yard gain.
Just another big day on the ground for Wisconsin's star tailback.
Gordon rushed for 175 yards and four touchdowns, Corey Clement added 164 yards and a 72-yard score and the Badgers held off Illinois for a 38-28 victory Saturday.
"He is — the — best player I've ever been around — his ability to change the game at any moment," coach Gary Andersen said about Gordon.
Gordon padded his resume for a potential Heisman Trophy candidacy with another highlight-reel performance. The junior eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season in just Wisconsin's sixth game, a school record.
Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) started Joel Stave at quarterback for the first time this season, but Gordon did most of the damage against the league's worst rushing defense.
Gordon's 46-yard scamper led to a 44-yard field goal that put Wisconsin up 24-14 at the half.
"It's tough because you don't know who's on the left side of you, or who's on the right side. You can get blasted like that sometimes," Gordon said. "You just do your best to try to keep your balance."
Illinois (3-4, 0-3) rallied in the fourth quarter with mobile backup Aaron Bailey at quarterback. He led them to two scores to get within 38-28 with about 3 minutes left before Illinois recovered an onside kick.
But Bailey threw an interception with 2 minutes left to seal Wisconsin's win. His fluttering deep pass was tracked down by safety Peniel Jean at the 2. Wisconsin ran out the clock from there.
"We worked hard and competed for four quarters. We just didn't have enough in us," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said.
And they couldn't stop Gordon, Wisconsin's one-man hurry-up offense.
Gordon, who finished with 27 carries, is a lethal combination of power and breakaway speed made all the more dangerous when the Badgers' beefy offensive line opens up running lanes.
It didn't really matter who was handing off the ball to Gordon or Clement. All week, coach Andersen maintained that both Stave and Tanner McEvoy would take snaps behind center.
On Saturday, Stave ended up supplanting McEvoy, who had started the first five weeks. Stave, who reclaimed the starting job he held last season, presents more of a deep-passing threat. McEvoy, a mobile quarterback, played just one series.
The best play call was simple: handoff to Gordon. He had touchdown runs in the first half from 15 and 6 yards before jumping into the end zone from a yard out with 1:08 left in the third quarter for his fourth score and a 31-14 lead.
"We had a lot of good pass plays in the game plan, but it's tough to get to when you're running it as effectively as we were," Stave said.
Illinois' Reilly O'Toole, starting for the injured Wes Lunt, finished 12 of 19 for 96 yards. He led Illinois on back-to-back scoring drives in the first quarter, including a 5-yard scoring pass to Geronimo Allison for a 5-yard score and short-lived 14-7 lead.
The Wisconsin defense picked up steam early in the second half.
Wisconsin held Illinois to a three-and-out on the first series after halftime, thanks to sacks by Konrad Zagzebski and Leon Jacobs.
Derek Landisch had a sack on the Illini's next drive to force a third-and-17 play that was stopped short of a first down. Gordon followed with his 1-yard scoring run on the ensuing series for the 17-point lead.
Beckman turned to Bailey at quarterback for the first time this year in the fourth quarter with Illinois down by 24, forfeiting a potential redshirt season for the dual-threat sophomore.
The Illini offense did show life late with Bailey, who finished with 12 carries for 75 yards, and was 2-of-5 passing for 39 yards.
Both teams now get a bye week to rest. Illinois' week off might be a bit more unsettling.
"There is a lot of negativity that surrounds this program right now," Beckman said in recounting his postgame talk. "I told them that it's only what we think inside our football family that really matters.