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Maryland football: Wisconsin star running back Melvin Gordon takes on Terrapins' defense

Can anybody stop the Badgers' star back? So far, mostly not. The Terps get a crack on Saturday, as defensive coordinator Brian Stewart faces an old friend.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In 1995, Brian Stewart took a position coaching tight ends at Northern Arizona. When he needed a place to stay, he turned to an assistant head coach, Gary Andersen, who had offered to put up Stewart, rent-free, in his basement for the entire season.

"He told me, 'Hey, we've got plenty of room downstairs. You don't have to try to get an apartment,'" Stewart recalled.

Stewart and Andersen have been good friends ever since. On Saturday, they'll meet at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisc., with Stewart Maryland's defensive coordinator and Andersen Wisconsin's head coach.

"I don't know if I know a better person," Stewart said.

No matter how good a landlord he once was, Andersen will present Stewart with one of his defense's greatest challenges of the year. Andersen's Badgers have the nation's best rushing attack, keyed by junior running back Melvin Gordon and his 7.9-yard per-carry average.

By nearly a full 40 yards over the next power conference team, the Badgers have the highest per-game team rushing total in the country, at 343 yards per day. As a team, the Badgers get 7.4 yards per run, which is a full yard per carry better than the next best power conference team in that sense, Indiana.

For the Badgers, it all starts with Gordon.

"It's not any one thing. It's a lot of things," Stewart said. "I think he has short-area quickness. I think he has long and short speed. I think he has great vision, and he has power. He's an upright runner that has a lot of power. It's a combination of things that makes him such a good runner."

Gordon has been enormously consistent. Since an odd 38-yard performance against Western Illinois on Sept. 6, he's put together games of 253, 181, 259 and 175 yards. He has 12 touchdowns in those four games and is already over 1,000 yards for the season.

The Terps faced down Tevin Coleman and Indiana last month and held Coleman in check. Gordon and Coleman are almost the exact same size and have posted similarly remarkable numbers this season.

"I see a see a lot of similarities," linebacker L.A. Goree said of Coleman and Gordon. "They kind of run the same, just kind of run hard and strong, and physical kind of guys. They're kind of looking for that cutback lane where they can cut back on you and score."

There isn't a great deal of secrecy behind coordinator Andy Ludwig's Wisconsin offense. They'll give the ball to Gordon or complimentary back Corey Clement and run them behind a physical offensive line, with a few short and intermediate passing plays sprinkled in. Wash, rinse, repeat.

"Basically, he's going to be running for or five plays, and he's going to run them right at you," Stewart said.

Goree likened the hard-running approach to what the Terps prepared for against Iowa. The Hawkeyes don't do it nearly as well as Wisconsin, though, and had to resort to throwing 56 passes in their game against Maryland. Iowa's rushing average for the year is roughly half of Wisconsin's, so it would be a surprise if this week's game unfolded in that way.

Wisconsin's longest receiving play of the year was 37 yards. Four different rushers have carried the ball farther than that on a single play. Behind quarterbacks Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave, the Badgers have thrown 136 passes in six games. The team has rushed the ball 279 times – or on about 67 percent of its total offensive snaps.

"It's easier because you know they're going to run, but they're just going to keep coming at you if you stop," linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil said. "They're just going to keep running the ball, running the ball. They just want to force you to make a mistake."

Andersen hasn't named his starting quarterback for Saturday, and it's barely registered as a storyline because of the intense national and local focus on Gordon's ability. The Terps are preparing for both Stave and McEvoy, Stewart said.

"Stave is more of a drop-back passer, seems to get the ball out of his hands quicker, understands and reads defenses pretty well," Stewart said. "I think that McEvoy does a good job of running the ball."

Maryland's secondary doesn't get a day off, of course. The Badgers have a couple of capable receivers. But no one has much question about Wisconsin's predominant gameplan. The Terps expect a lot of shifting and movement near the line of scrimmage before plays – followed by a lot of Gordon.

"He's got speed and good vision. He's got good explosiveness and power to him as well. He's an all-around back," Randy Edsall said. "What they try to do is gain leverage on you and outnumber you. You have to be really good in terms of making sure you protect the edges and you have to get everyone to fit properly versus the runs that you are going to see. If you don't, he's got all of those qualities that I just mentioned to be able to hurt you."