A running back setting himself apart from others in Wisconsin history takes a monumental feat.
The Badgers have the all-time leading rusher (Ron Dayne), career rushing touchdown leader (Montee Ball, who is also tied for the single-season record) and now the single-game rushing leader (Melvin Gordon).
Gordon’s 408 rushing yards against Nebraska last week, though, puts him in reach of the biggest prize for any running back, much less a Wisconsin running back — Barry Sanders’ single-season rushing record.
Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards in 11 games in 1988 for Oklahoma State, a mark that’s been seriously challenged only once since then. UCF’s Kevin Smith came 61 yards short of tying Sanders in 2007.
To put Gordon’s season in perspective, only four running backs have come within 500 yards of Sanders’ record: Smith in 2007, Iowa State’s Troy Davis by 443 yards in 1986, Boston College’s Andre Williams by 451 yards last season, and TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson by 470 yards in 2000.
Before we delve deeper into Gordon’s shot at Sanders’ record, consider this: In 1988, the record for single-season passing in 1988 belonged to BYU’s Jim McMahon (4,571 yards in 1980). That mark has been exceeded 22 times since.
Back to Gordon: The Badgers running back sits at 1,909 rushing yards through 10 games and could play as many as 14 games if the Badgers clinch a trip to the Big Ten title game Saturday.
While Gordon won’t match Sanders’ mark of 238.9 rushing yards per game, he does have a chance to catch Sanders in a couple of other ways. And perhaps what’s most remarkable, Gordon could do it by rushing below his own season average.
Here’s a look at the records in Gordon’s sights in the final three or four games:
• Counting a Big Ten title game and a bowl, Gordon would need to rush for 720 yards in the final four games to pass Sanders. That’s an average of 180 yards per game. Gordon averages 190.9.
• Let’s say Wisconsin loses each of its last two games and misses the Big Ten title game. Gordon would need to average 240 yards in games against Minnesota and Iowa and in the bowl game. He’s exceeded that total three times this season.
• But if we’re going to say it's possible Gordon could average 240 yards in three games, what if those three games include the Big Ten title game? That would mean Gordon has a chance to break Sanders’ record before the bowl game — and before the Heisman voting. Since Ron Dayne in 1999, only two running backs have won the Heisman (Mark Ingram in 2009 and Reggie Bush in 2005).
• While Sanders’ rushing yards per game average is out of reach, Gordon can better Sanders in the per-play department. Sanders holds the record for backs with more than 280 carries with 7.64 yards per attempt. Gordon averages 8.56 yards per carry on 223 attempts. That would surpass Nebraska running back Mike Rozier’s record of 7.81 yards per carry for backs with at least 215 attempts.
• And as ESPN’s Brett Edgerton notes, Gordon could beat Sanders to the 2,000-yard mark.
• So what about those Big Ten marks? Dayne holds the Big Ten record for single-season rushing with 2,109 yards in 1996. If Gordon’s season averages hold up, he’ll break that record sometime in the first half of the regular-season finale against Minnesota.
• Moreover, Gordon might have the Big Ten’s single-season rushing yards per game record all but wrapped up. Gordon, at 190.9 yards per game, is already well ahead of the record set by Michigan State’s Lorenzo White in 1985 (173.5).