Big Ten returns to its running roots

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

During Big Ten media days in July, the spotlight turned to the league's apparent culture change on offense.

From the arrival of spread-offense innovator Rich Rodriguez to the retirement of spread-offense pioneer Joe Tiller to the introduction of the spread at tradition-rich Penn State, the Big Ten appeared to have closed the book on its cloud-of-dust past and transitioned into the 21st century. Sissy ball, as Tiller often calls it, had swept through the league. Aside from Ohio State's Chris "Beanie" Wells, a Heisman Trophy contender, few running backs were discussed.

And yet nine weeks into the season, the Big Ten offensive landscape looks much like it did decades earlier, with dominant running backs carrying the flags for their teams.

The Big 12 has dominated the national spotlight with its collection of golden-armed quarterbacks, four of whom remain in the Heisman Trophy mix. The nation's best wide receivers also reside in the Big 12, while many of the nation's top defenders call the SEC or ACC home.

But when it comes to running backs, the Big Ten stands alone.

The league boasts two of the nation's top three runners -- Michigan State's Javon Ringer and Iowa's Shonn Greene -- and five players ranked in the top 35 for rushing average. Toss in Wells, who hasn't played in enough games to qualify for the national statistics, and the Big Ten would have three players in the top 15 for rushing average and four in the top 20.

"We're pretty much the best conference as far as running backs go," Greene said. "The Big Ten Conference is a big, hard-nosed football conference, pound-it-out football."

The league has seven teams ranked among the top 50 nationally in rushing offense. No other conference has more than five.

"It seems like every week, whoever you play, there are outstanding running backs," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

But what about the spread? Shouldn't we be talking about versatile quarterbacks and multiple receiver sets, bubble screens and quick hitches?

Quarterback play has been a disappointment in the league, with several exceptions (Daryll Clark, Juice Williams, Adam Weber). Spread-offense teams like Michigan, Purdue and Indiana rank at the bottom of the league in scoring.

Though the spread has worked masterfully at Penn State, which ranks eighth nationally in scoring (41.8 points-per-game), teams like Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin rely on traditional schemes and running backs to carry the load.

"The running back position in this league is unbelievable," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "Because of this league, and maybe a little bit because of what this league is known for over time, we've been able to go out and recruit great running backs from all over the country.

We feel the benefits of that when we go out and recruit right now, too, not only our tradition here at Wisconsin but in the league. It helps us get some of the best running backs in the country."

Ringer burst onto the Heisman radar after a dominant September, both from a production and a durability standpoint. The senior has 65 more carries than any other FBS back and four games of 194 rushing yards or more.

Greene and Connecticut's Donald Brown have been the nation's most consistent backs. The Iowa junior, who spent all of last season away from the team to improve his academics, has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all eight games and boasts the second-best yards-per-carry average (6.52) among FBS players with at least 150 carries.

"The Big 12, they're doing a great job right now," Illinois linebacker Brit Miller said. "The quarterbacks are playing insane. They're lighting up the scoreboard. But we definitely embody some of the best running backs in the nation. If you're a big, physical guy, then you want to play in the Big Ten."

While Ringer and Greene get plenty of chances to showcase their skills, arguably the Big Ten's most electrifying runner has made do with limited opportunities. Penn State's Evan Royster ranks 19th nationally in rushing average (107.8 yards-per-game) despite averaging only 15 carries per game.

Purdue's Kory Sheets and Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton play in pass-oriented spread offenses, but both backs have shown their versatility, combining for 56 receptions to go along with 306 carries.

Wisconsin's P.J. Hill started strong and has been complemented well lately by John Clay (5.6 yards-per-carry). Until last week, Wells had performed extremely well since his return from a foot injury. Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford are contributing nicely for Illinois.

"Certainly you have some guys that are as talented as any ones we've seen in the past," Tiller said. "It looks to me like there are more really top-drawer quality running backs this year than normal."