IOWA CITY -- Kirk Ferentz is often asked about the opposing team's top players, so it was no surprise that Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon was a bullet point Tuesday.
The sophomore Gordon is fourth nationally with 144.6 rushing yards per game. He also leads the Big Ten and is tied for the conference lead in rushing TDs with 11. He averages an otherworldly 9.46 yards a carry on 107 attempts. Only Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (7.38 yards a carry on 133 attempts) is in that stratosphere.
The fact that Gordon, a native of Kenosha, Wis., was an Iowa commitment at one point during his recruitment in 2010 has been covered this week. (“If you want the honest answer on that one, he committed to us and I remember the day it happened and all of that,” Ferentz said. “But I never got the feeling everybody was totally on board with that, his entire family. Recruiting’s an emotional thing and all of that stuff. It didn’t work out that way.”)
Ferentz always is asked about star players. He's rarely asked about specific plays.
During Tuesday's news conference, the use of the jet sweep by the No. 23 Badgers (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) came up. Ohio State is the signature team in the Big Ten, but Wisconsin's jet sweep is arguably the league's signature play.
"It's obviously hard [to defend]," Ferentz said. "It's been a big thing for us. They had it on the road in '09 right off the bat with that same package. They ended up not getting a lot of points, but it felt like we were losing 25-0 at halftime. We couldn't slow that thing down."
Wisconsin has run that play -- where the ball carrier lines up as a wide receiver, springs toward the quarterback and takes a handoff outside -- for several years. Gordon just might be the perfect player for it.
In the Badgers' 70-31 rout of Nebraska in the Big Ten title game last season, Gordon broke out with 216 yards and a TD on just nine carries. A lot of this damage came off the jet sweep.
First-year Badgers coach Gary Andersen, who was hired from Utah State, broke the play down nicely during Tuesday's Big Ten teleconference. The key, he said, is, of course, Gordon, a 6-1, 207-pounder.
"First of all, the young man running the ball in that situation is the most important factor," Andersen said. "Melvin has a great feel for it, he has great ability, which we all know. He loves the opportunity to get the ball in his hands in that situation, so that’s the biggest part of the success.
"If Melvin has the ability to get his shoulders squared, often he’s very difficult to tackle and it takes a talented young man to bring him down in the open field."
So then, gear up to stop the jet sweep, which attacks the edge of the defense, and quarterback Joel Stave just hands off to running back James White, who lines up as the traditional running back in this formation. White is the Big Ten's No. 3 rusher at 96.0 yards a game.
The defense is fighting battles on two fronts and has little time to react.
"When you have the jet sweep, there's the potential, on one play, to hurt you on the outside, where the sweep is going, or hand the ball off on the inside," linebacker James Morris said. "What they're essentially making you do is defend more of the field. Certain plays, you can diagnose it from the snap. On this play, you might not know.
"I might not know until one or two seconds into the play. Hopefully, not that long."
Perimeter blocks make the play deadly. Wisconsin's wide receivers take that part of their game seriously.
"I would say our wide receivers are invested and our care factor in blocking is very high," Andersen said. "They make it happen on the perimeter, if you give Melvin a crease. It’s not just one thing, it’s all of those things rolled up in each other that makes it be a successful series for us, if you will."
Andersen used the word "series." The play and the formation can sprout so much. The Gordon sweep, the White inside run play and then there also could be a play-action pass. The Badgers also have Jared Abbrederis, the No. 3 wide receiver in the conference with 107.4 yards a game.
"I think he's one of the best players in the conference," Ferentz said. "He's just a fantastic football player."
So, what do you do, Hawkeyes?
"You've got to play assignment football, read your keys," free safety Tanner Miller said.
"As a defensive back, you're backpedaling," cornerback B.J. Lowery said. "As soon as you see the runner cross the line of scrimmage, you have to come up and attack."
"You try to bubble the play and force a decision," defensive end Drew Ott said.Every Iowa defender had an answer for the jet sweep question. They knew it was coming. They know it is coming.