The carries could be hard to come by for University of Wisconsin redshirt freshman tailback Melvin Gordon in the fall.
But during the annual Cardinal-and-White scrimmage on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, Gordon had all he could want.
With starter Montee Ball held out as a precaution and backup James White sidelined with a bruised knee, the Badgers showed off their impressive depth at tailback with Gordon taking over top billing and rushing 30 times for 159 yards and a touchdown.
Junior walk-on Kyle Zuleger also was out with an injury, leaving Gordon and sophomore Jeff Lewis to get almost all of the carries.
“A five-deep running back corps suddenly got slimmed down to two healthy guys,” UW coach Bret Bielema said.
On a cold and blustery day in front of an announced crowd of 10,479, Bielema and running backs coach Thomas Hammock wanted to see how Gordon would handle a heavy workload.
“Thomas and myself both wanted to see Melvin grind it out,” Bielema said. “That’s one of the things he hasn’t had to do. That’s something I was happy to see, he almost got stronger as the day went on, in my opinion. I was really excited to see him handle this whole game.”
The final score was 21-10 in favor of the Cardinal, which consisted of the starting offense and defense. The scoring system included field-goal competitions at the end of the first and third quarters and double points for the White.
There were two touchdowns, both by the Cardinal. Quarterback Joel Stave threw a 7-yard pass to Chase Hammond, who reached back to make a nice catch, in the first quarter. Gordon scored on a 2-yard run in the second quarter.
That was still better than a year ago, when there were no touchdowns in the spring game.
While the rain ended prior to the game, the conditions were wet. The Badgers didn’t have a single fumble or any botched center-quarterback exchanges.
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada was hoping for a turnover-free game from the two quarterbacks and would have gotten it if he didn’t listen to Bielema.
Stave played three quarters for the Cardinal and one for the White, completing 14 of 25 passes overall for 135 yards. His numbers would have been better if not for several dropped passes.
He threw one interception, by Darius Feaster, with about a minute remaining.
“Joel continues to impress me, his maturity, the way he handles it,” Bielema said. “Obviously, love to have that last throw back in the red zone. Last time you’ll ever hear me say it, Matt wanted to run it, I wanted to throw it. ... In retrospect, should have ran it there.”
Stave jumped ahead of sophomore Joe Brennan, who was the backup to departed starter Russell Wilson last year, over the final two weeks of the spring and the gap appears to be widening.
Brennan had a miserable day, completing only 2 of 11 passes for 24 yards. While it’s never easy being the quarterback for the White, Brennan was given the third quarter with the Cardinal and posted two three-and-outs.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Brennan said of the third quarter. “It was a good opportunity for me. It just didn’t go the way I would like.”
But the day belonged to Gordon, who also had a 32-yard run around left end called back due to tight end Jacob Pedersen’s holding penalty.
“It’s going out there and getting myself better,” Gordon said of his performance. “I didn’t look at it like, James is down, Montee’s not going, I just looked at it as more reps and more opportunities to get better.”
Gordon is not sure how many carries there will be for him in the fall, diplomatically saying he will leave it up to the coaches.
As a true freshman last fall, he was good enough in camp to force the coaches to play him despite all of the talented backs. He played in three of the first four games, then was redshirted due to a lingering groin injury.
He has improved since then, “hitting the holes harder” and “lowering my pads.”
Said Bielema, “The good news about him is we’ve got four years of him.”