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Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon 'the best of the best'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

As Melvin Gordon ran all over Nebraska on Saturday, one thought kept coming to mind.

No, it wasn't that Gordon is the best player in college football this year — though he just might be, especially after setting a single-game FBS record with 408 rushing yards.

What I couldn't stop wondering was how in the heck did this team lose to Northwestern? For that matter, how in the world did they lose to LSU?

Yeah, I know that quarterback play has been an issue most of the season. But when you have a runner like Gordon and a defense that ranks as the best in the Big Ten, you can bet the Badgers are looking back at those losses and kicking themselves.

Because with all apologies to Ohio State and Michigan State, Wisconsin might be the best thing going in the Big Ten right now. I wouldn't have said that before this week, and assuming the Badgers and Buckeyes meet in the conference championship game, I'll probably still lean toward Ohio State.

In fact, I might even take Michigan State in a matchup with Wisconsin based on how the Spartans normally fare against one-dimensional offenses (see the Nebraska game).

But it's hard to bet against a team that has a player the level of Gordon.

He surpassed LaDainian Tomlinson's single-game mark and added four touchdowns on just 25 carries and did so in just three quarters.

"To see a performance like that was amazing," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "I think he's the best of the best, and I think he proved it today when he was given the opportunity.

"A lot of people have God-given ability, but a lot of people don't do anything with that God-given ability. He's taken it to the highest level, in my opinion."

What might be more impressive is that Gordon lost two fumbles in the first half as Nebraska actually went ahead 17-3. He simply bounced back to run for 189 yards in the second quarter alone.

"You never know when a special day is going to come," Gordon said. "I didn't even know I was close to a record like that. I was trying to hold back a little bit, but after they told me, I felt so good."

A bit lost in all the Gordon euphoria was the fact the defense held Nebraska to 180 total yards and the Badgers now find themselves in position to reach the Big Ten championship game for the third time in four years.

It won't be simple with a trip to Iowa next week and Minnesota at home in the finale. But give each of those teams multiple weeks to figure out a way to slow Gordon and it still might not matter.

And it was Gordon who was quick to point out what really mattered for the Badgers.

"This game meant a lot," he said. "Forget about the statistics. I knew if we lost this game, it'd be tough for us to get into the Big Ten championship."

If the Badgers get there, they will hardly be lamenting the early losses. But I'm guessing a small part of them might be wondering what if?

What if Gordon finishes the game against LSU? What if the quarterbacks throw one less interception against Northwestern?

It won't be the focus now, but there's no arguing it's the difference between a good team and one that could be a playoff team.

"It was a tremendous victory for all of us. Every single person," Andersen said. "We've got to back it up next week. That's what you do. It's easy to start, winners can sustain and maintain, but only the great ones can finish."

Lame ducks (not Oregon)

You have to wonder if we're seeing the final couple of games for a pair of Big Ten coaches — and we're not talking about Brady Hoke. Tim Beckman at Illinois and Kevin Wilson at Indiana might simply be playing out the string.

Wilson, in his fourth season, suffered another loss on Saturday, 45-23 to Rutgers. Tevin Coleman ran for a career-high 307 yards and the Hoosiers still weren't close. In fact, it's never seemed Wilson has known exactly how to handle Coleman, sitting him inexplicably at times this season.

And as dynamic as the Indiana offense can be, the defense is still a mess and the wins simply aren't coming. There have been flashes since Wilson went 1-11 in 2011, a win at Missouri this season included. But they've been few and far between for a team that hasn't won a conference game all season.

Beckman's team was hammered again Saturday, allowing 304 yards rushing in a 30-14 loss to Iowa. And while the Illini still have a shot at reaching a bowl game if they can beat Penn State and Northwestern in the final two weeks, that might not be enough to keep Beckman around.

Illinois has won just two Big Ten games the past two seasons and its defense shows no sign of progress as the pressure has been mounting on Beckman and his staff all season.

"I think that's what this program needs is some stability," Beckman said. "It needs some consistency and time to continue to build."

Maybe so, but I'm not betting it happens for either Beckman or Wilson.

How Big Ten teams fared

East Division

Saturday's result; Next Saturday's game

Ohio State (6-0, 9-1) d. Minnesota, 31-24; vs. Indiana, noon (BTN)

Michigan State (5-1, 8-2) d. Maryland, 37-15; vs. Rutgers, noon (BTN)

Maryland (3-3, 6-4) lost to Michigan State, 37-15; at Michigan, 3:30 (BTN)

Michigan (3-3, 5-5) IDLE; vs. Maryland, 3:30 (BTN)

Rutgers (2-4, 6-4) d. Indiana, 45-23; at Michigan State, noon (BTN)

Penn State (2-4, 6-4) d. Temple, 30-13; at Illinois, noon (ESPN2)

Indiana (0-6, 3-7) lost to Rutgers, 45-23; at Ohio State, noon (BTN)

West Division

Saturday's result; Next Saturday's game

Wisconsin (5-1, 8-2) d. Nebraska, 59-24; at Iowa, 3:30 (ABC)

Nebraska (4-2, 8-2) lost to Wisconsin, 59-24; vs. Minnesota, noon (ESPN)

Iowa (4-2, 7-3) d. Illinois, 30-14; vs. Wisconsin, 3:30 (ABC)

Minnesota (4-2, 7-3) lost to Ohio State, 31-24; at Nebraska, noon (ESPN)

Northwestern (2-4, 4-6) d. Notre Dame, 43-40 (OT); at Purdue, noon (ESPNU)

Illinois (1-5, 4-6) lost to Iowa, 30-14; vs. Penn State, noon (ESPN2)

Purdue (1-5, 3-7) IDLE; vs. Northwestern, noon (ESPNU)