Opposing defenses have apparently seen enough of the University of Wisconsin football team’s fly sweep, which had been torching them for much of the past two seasons.
That was certainly the case for Brigham Young’s defense, which was intent on stopping sophomore running back Melvin Gordon whenever he went in motion prior to the snap in the Badgers’ 27-17 victory on Saturday.
“We were not going to get the fly sweep underway against BYU, that was just not going to happen,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “They were running three guys at it and brought the guy off the edge. There were two guys he’d have to beat at the spot.
“Now, Melvin, maybe he might beat those two guys, (but) just looking at the odds, we were better off running the other plays that came off it, which were very valuable to us.”
It was the second straight opponent, along with Iowa in the previous game, that was focused on taking away what has become a huge part of Gordon’s success the past two seasons.
As a result, Gordon’s rushing totals dipped dramatically in the last two games. He had 17 carries for 62 yards against Iowa, followed by 19 carries and 86 yards against BYU, with no touchdowns in either game.
Heading into the Iowa game, Gordon ranked fourth in the nation and led the Big Ten Conference with an average of 144.6 rushing yards per game. He was averaging 9.5 yards per carry.
This week, he is averaging 128.9 yards per game and 8.1 yards per carry — still highly productive numbers. But he has dipped to seventh nationally and second in the conference, trailing Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, who is averaging 134.8 yards per game.
The recent dropoff led to questions for Andersen about whether Gordon had any injury issues.
“Nothing’s slowing him down; he’s practicing great,” Andersen said.
Gordon’s dip in production has coincided with senior tailback James White’s explosion. White has rushed 42 times for 279 yards (6.6 average) and four touchdowns in the past two games. White also has caught eight passes for 66 yards and another score.
“That’s why you have a two-back system, and that’s why it’s so effective,” Gordon said.
The Badgers didn’t hand the ball off a single time on the fly sweep last week, but it still had an impact on the game. Devoting extra defenders to the edges of the defense to stop that play can open the middle of the defense. Gordon had two carries for 14 yards and White had three for 11 going up the middle after faking handoffs on the fly sweep.
While those totals were modest, the Badgers rushed for 229 yards and a 5.1 average. The mere threat of the fly sweep forces defenses to defend the entire width of the field.
Lately, the Badgers also have found other ways to quickly get the ball on the perimeter, with quick passes to receivers at the line of scrimmage.
It’s all part of a comprehensive offensive package that makes it difficult to shut down everything. That’s why the UW running game continues to churn along, ranking 10th nationally at 280.6 yards per game and trailing only Ohio State (301.1) among Big Ten teams.
The biggest factor for Gordon in the past two games has been a lack of explosive plays. He had 11 runs of 20-plus yards, including four of 65 yards or more, in the first seven games. His long carry in the past two games was 23 yards against BYU.
But against two strong defenses, Gordon showed his toughness between the tackles, something people questioned earlier in his career.
“I understand that,” Gordon said of the reasons for the dropoff in production. “I’m practicing hard, but the big runs aren’t coming my way.
“Sometimes you have to take the tough yards. I did that (Saturday), and I’m fine with that, as long as we win.”
Andersen praised the way Gordon has handled the decline. “I’m also proud, when it doesn’t go his way for those 50-, 60-, 70-yard runs or the big plays, that he keeps on grinding and keeps on going,” Andersen said, adding he thinks Gordon is playing well overall.
“The creases may not be there, he doesn’t have the numbers, but Melvin is progressively getting better every single week at the other things that are important in football other than running the ball. His blocking’s getting better, he’s catching the ball consistently in practice, (which) doesn’t show up a lot on game day right now. I’m proud of the strides he’s making.”
That’s an example of the influence Gordon and White have had on each other.
“I think Melvin has learned a lot this year, learning how to run between the tackles … and James has really helped him,” Andersen said. “It’s helped Melvin understand protections better and better. James did tremendous things last week in protection.
“A great complement for Melvin, to be able to learn from James, and then James to be able to learn from Melvin, the way Melvin does the things on the outside and what he did last year and what he’s continuing to do this year.”