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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Oct. 20, 2014

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In Sports

Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon could find himself in the Heisman Trophy conversation in 2014. (PHOTO: Steve/WikiCommons)

Badgers hope to vault to top of Big Ten


It can be argued that the biggest college football game of the year for the state of Wisconsin will be played Saturday night, when the Wisconsin Badgers head south to face Louisiana State University (LSU) on the neutral field of Reliant Stadium – home of the National Football League's Houston Texans – in Texas.

Wisconsin has a 12-game regular season schedule and three other non-conference games following this game – but a win or a loss undoubtedly sets the tone for the entire season.

The Tigers, led by head coach Les Miles, went 10-3 and finished third in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) West last year behind powerhouses Auburn and Alabama. While they aren't considered national title favorites this season, they are perennially in the conversation as one of the country's top college football programs.

The Badgers went 9-4 last year in head coach Gary Andersen's first campaign in Madison, and hope to build off that with a younger – but perhaps more explosive team.

Over the weekend it was reported that junior Tanner McEvoy had won the quarterback competition over the more seasoned Joel Stave (though publicly Andersen is remaining coy). The 6-foot, 6-inch McEvoy played safety, and a little wide receiver, last year for the Badgers.

"I would say he's an elite athlete. But the way he moves around in his size, his ability to; the speed he runs with, I think he runs very, very well," Andersen said of McEvoy at the Big Ten media days this summer. "He's elusive and he's smart. He's got the ball in his hands. So he's a very talented athlete, allows you to do some things offensively to force defenses to understand that if you make a mistake, he's more than willing to take off and make you pay."

McEvoy made his way to Madison by way of Arizona Western College after beginning his career at South Carolina and even back in the spring, Andersen raved about McEvoy's presence behind center.

"He carries himself like a quarterback," Andersen said in April. "I think when he walked in here before, he carried himself like a quarterback that was absorbing a very difficult offense and new terminology. So much of the run checks that he has to handle and the demeanor that he carried himself with last August and the way he carries himself with today is really completely different. You can always have the athleticism ability to throw the football, but you've got to fit within the system, and what I'm most proud about Tanner is he has fit himself in the system.

"He's getting the run checks down, he's understanding the play action throws, and he's definitely improved in that area. He walks up to the huddle, he looks more comfortable, and I think the football team is more comfortable around him, similar to how they were with Joel walking in and saying, hey, this guy can get it done for us."

While all eyes will be McEvoy, it will help that he'll be turning around and handing the ball off – or pitching it to – pre-season All-American and Heisman Trophy hopeful Melvin Gordon.

The Kenosha native rushed for 1,609 yards (123.8 yards per game) and 12 touchdowns and had seven runs of 60 yards or longer, landing him on the watch lists for the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Player of the Year Award and the Doak Walker Award.

Gordon could have turned pro and been a mid-round NFL draft pick, but elected to return.

"He was excited about his opportunity," Andersen said of Gordon. "He's definitely goal driven and I would expect Melvin to be goal driven. I want him to talk about the things that he wants his team, the goals he sets for his team and the goals he has for himself. I don't think that's anything wrong with that."

Gordon's complement in the backfield was James White (1,444 yards) who is now in the NFL, so Corey Clement will become the Omega to Gordon's Alpha.

"I believe that Corey can walk in and play a very significant role," Andersen said. "Now, what is that role? We shall see. Corey's been in the Big Ten games. He's been in selected plays, selected moments. But now he's got to go in there when it's 0-0, go in there in the fourth quarter when we need a yard, to be able to seal the drive to keep it alive. He's got to play at crucial moments. Not that he hasn't played in any crucial moments., but he hasn't been in as many crucial moments as he's been when he walks in and kind of finishing the game off, I guess you could say. But he's prepared for that.

"And I would like to say we're going to have that same two headed monster."

Questions remain at wide receiver, in the linebacking corps and in the defensive backfield as the Badgers look to replace long-term starters. But with (potentially) the best 1-2 punch in the country at running back, and a high-level athlete like McEvoy running Andersen's version of the spread offense, the Badgers are poised to repeat, if not build on, a year in which the Badgers set school records for total offense (480.8 yards per game), rushing yards (3,689) and rushing average (6.62 yards per carry) while scoring 34.8 points per game, the third highest total in school history.

If the Badgers can pull the mild upset over LSU on Saturday, it sets the stage for a potential run at one of the four spots in college football's new playoff. The Badgers host Western Illinois (4-8), Bowling Green (10-4) and South Florida (2-10) in the non-conference before beginning its Big Ten slate which does not include Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State.

"I'm never going to put wins and losses on it," Andersen said of his expectations. "I expect every one of them to take care of them socially, continue to grow from a young man to a man and I also expect them to graduate with a degree that's going to allow them to move forward in life and support a family or children or whatever that they decide to move forward with.

"So that is the statement every single year. And that will never change for us. But again, I don't need to tell these kids a lot. I think their goals that they're writing down and what they've had throughout the summer, their goals are very good. They're edgy. They've got expectations about themselves, which I think they should."

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