University of Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon feared the worst when it happened.
On the final play of the third quarter against Ohio State two weeks ago, Gordon made a spin move on a run around right end. He was attempting to cut inside of cornerback Doran Grant, and Gordon had his left knee extended when Grant fell on it.
“It was really scary,” Gordon said. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘It’s over.’ I was definitely worried.”
Gordon actually felt the knee pop out a little bit, which is why he thought his season might be finished.
“I couldn’t even move my knee,” he said. “It was kind of crazy. I haven’t had anything like that before. The first thing you think is, ‘I’m going to be out. I can’t help the team.’”
The game had been a struggle for Gordon up to that point. His second carry was a jet sweep on which Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby submerged him. Gordon sprained his ankle on that play. He also banged up his shoulder at some point in the game.
But after his knee popped back into place, Gordon was ready to return to the game in the fourth quarter.
“When they put it back in place, I was good,” he said. “I felt like I could get back out there. They wanted to keep me out. I ran on the sideline, I was making cuts, I felt fine. They just told me to sit out, just because they’re looking out for my future. But it hurt me not being out there to help my teammates.”
The Badgers would go on to suffer a 31-24 loss, but as important as that game was to them, it was a time for cooler heads to prevail.
“As a coach, sometimes we’ve got to take the responsibility because, as a player, you’re going to say, ‘I can go,’ no matter what,” running backs coach Thomas Hammock said. “That’s what you want. He was ready to go. He wanted to get back out there. But we certainly wanted to make sure he was 100 percent for the rest of the season as well.”
Gordon, the Big Ten Conference’s leading rusher at 139.6 yards per game, didn’t practice during the bye a week ago. But he returned on Monday and will be ready to face No. 19 Northwestern (4-1, 0-1 Big Ten) for Homecoming Saturday in another crucial game for the Badgers (3-2, 1-1).
“We’ve got to come out and make plays,” Gordon said. “Running backs didn’t play up to our potential (against Ohio State). We know that. We’re going to get after it.”
This has been a season filled with learning experiences for Gordon. It’s easy to forget the redshirt sophomore only has 150 career carries under his belt. He has certainly made the most of them, rushing for 1,417 yards — an average of 9.4 yards per carry — with 11 touchdowns.
Fortunately for Gordon, whenever expectations start to get crazy, Hammock is there with a cold slap of reality.
“It’s not like he’s played a lot of football,” Hammock said. “Every day we come out here (to practice) and learn something different about ourselves. Things we can continue to improve upon.
“The biggest thing, the media and everyone else want to make him into something. Let him have a chance to develop into the player he’s going to become. He’s certainly on the path to do that.
“He’s certainly not a complete player, but he’s working every day to make sure he can be the most complete player he can be.”
One of the things Gordon is dealing with is fighting through the injuries that inevitably pop up during a long season.
“He hurt his shoulder in the (Ohio State) game, he hurt his ankle,” Hammock said. “I just think he understands, ‘This is what it feels like. This is what Montee (Ball) felt.’ He’s starting to feel that. I’m just really excited about his development and where he’s going with that.”
Ball was a workhorse running back who set a UW school record as a senior last season with 356 rushing attempts.
Gordon isn’t used the same way because it’s not needed. He is averaging 13.6 rushing attempts per game in a shared arrangement with senior James White and freshman Corey Clement, who could re-emerge Saturday after not getting a carry against the Buckeyes.
The most carries Gordon has had in one game was 16 — for 147 yards — in the most recent home game, a 41-10 win over Purdue. But as Gordon found out against the Buckeyes, it doesn’t mean he’s not subject to wear and tear like other Big Ten backs.
Gordon admitted earlier in his career he might not have been able to play through the ankle sprain.
“My freshman year, it was tough for me to run with ankle sprains and things like that,” he said. “I kind of hurt my ankle the same way in the spring and I was out. But you get used to it. Mentally, you’re able to push past things.”
Another challenge for Gordon is bouncing back from his lowest rushing output of the season. While he finished with just 74 yards on 15 carries against the Buckeyes, he still averaged 4.9 yards per carry and was on pace for a fifth straight 100-yard game before hurting his knee.
The lesson for Gordon from that game? “Just how many opportunities you get (in a game),” he said. “You don’t get that many. You might get one and another opportunity may not come until the third or fourth quarter. You’ve got to make the best of those because if you miss one against good teams like that, it’s hard to get another crease.”
Gordon thought he had a crease for a long run on his first carry, but safety C.J. Barnett closed fast and held him to a 2-yard gain. On the next series, Gordon suffered the sprained ankle on the Roby hit.
“The whole preparation, I was expecting Ohio State to hit me up high,” Gordon said. “Even the safeties. But they didn’t. They went low on me and they got me. They caught me off guard, definitely.”
Northwestern also has good safeties, especially junior Ibraheim Campbell, so it will be another test for Gordon to win those one-on-one battles, which he did most of the time in the first four games.
“As a running back, if a guy’s going to sweep tackle you (at the ankles), that’s what you want,” Hammock said. “Because their head is going down and you should be prepared for that moment. We constantly work those moments in practice.
“It just happened a half a step quicker (against Ohio State) than what it’s been happening. I think it’s a good test for us and a good awareness for us, to continue moving forward, to make that guy miss.”
Carlos Hyde, Ohio State’s 235-pound running back, powered through Northwestern’s defense for 168 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries in the Buckeyes’ 40-30 victory last week. While the 207-pound Gordon is a different type of back, he could play just as important of a role in this game.
“Ohio State’s safeties play well in the box,” Hammock said. “Northwestern is the same. They’ve got two really, really good safeties that come downhill. I think Ohio State was a good test for us to get ready for this. I think we’ll be ready for the moment.”