Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Running back enthusiasts circled the Ohio State-Michigan State game long before the season, but few would have pegged Javon Ringer to be the man of the hour.
Ringer entered the season under the radar. He had bad fantasy stats -- a lot of yards but few touchdowns -- and played on a Michigan State team that always seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough. Those who had seen Ringer play recognized his potential for this season, especially with touchdown-taker Jehuu Caulcrick out of the way.
But when it came to Big Ten running backs, only one name stood out.
This was supposed to be Chris "Beanie" Wells' year. He was the bona fide Heisman contender on the flashy team, the NFL prototype coming off a 1,600-yard sophomore season. When Ohio State marched into Spartan Stadium, Wells would be the main attraction and Ringer the side act.
But a toe injury in the third quarter of the season opener changed the script, sidelining Wells for three games. By the time he returned, Ringer had put himself in the Heisman mix, producing big-time numbers with a big-time workload.
The two backs will share the spotlight Saturday at Spartan Stadium (ABC, 3:30 p.m.), though most eyes will be on Ringer to see if he keeps pace in the Heisman race.
"He's a difference maker," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.
Much of the praise for Ringer this season hasn't centered on his phenomenal stats (1,112 rush yards, 14 touchdowns, 1,412 all-purpose yards) or ridiculous workload (247 carries, 68 more than any FBS back), but his character and the humility he has shown despite increased attention this year.
Tressel first saw those ingredients when recruiting Ringer out of Chaminade-Julienne High School in Dayton, Ohio.
"He lights up a room when he walks in, he lights up a huddle when he walks in it, and he lights up a field when he takes the ball," Tressel said. "He's a quality person and he's a tremendously hard worker.
"He's everything you would dream of having in a back."
Ohio State originally coveted Ringer, but the back needed a higher ACT score to qualify. Before re-taking the exam, Ringer injured his knee. The Buckeyes never offered a scholarship, although Tressel disputed a report that Ohio State president Karen Holbrook had blocked the university from admitting Ringer.
Michigan State wound up with Ringer, who went through another knee injury as a sophomore but responded with 1,447 yards last fall, the league's third-highest total behind Wells and Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall.
"He has a way of fighting through adversity," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "He uplifts other people. ... He makes everyone around him have a little bit better day."
Wells takes on a similar role with Ohio State. It became clear during Wells' three-game absence that he wasn't merely the Buckeyes' best player.
"He's the heart and soul of the team emotionally," offensive lineman Jim Cordle said. "When you get a guy like that out on the field with us, it's just an extra boost and we play that much harder."
In the three games since his return, Wells has 368 rushing yards on 58 carries.
"I wonder if he's 100 percent healthy yet, I suspect he's not," said Purdue coach Joe Tiller, whose team held Wells to 94 yards last Saturday. "Although he had some runs on Saturday that looked as good as any he's ever had."
Wells and Ringer first crossed paths at Ohio State's football camp as prep standouts. Ringer was a junior, Wells a sophomore.
The two backs have kept in touch since, and though they're not close friends, they always catch up after games. Ringer also has made a point to study Wells.
"He's one of the best running backs in the country," Ringer said.
The two backs differ in size, as the 6-1, 237-pound Wells has two inches and 35 pounds on Ringer. But Ringer has blossomed as a power back this season, bringing his style closer to that of Wells, whose stiff-arm is feared around the league.
Ringer has the three highest single-game carries totals (44, 43 and 39) in the country this season and has eclipsed 120 rushing yards in all but two games.
"We both run with determination," Ringer said. "We both run like we've got something to prove every time the ball is in our hands. And we never want to let the first one or two defenders bring us down. If we're going to get tackled, it has to be a gang tackle. I know there's some similarities."
While Ringer wears down defenses and often does his most damage in the fourth quarter, Wells has found space, racking up eight runs of 20 yards or more in only four games.
"They both have the ability that when they get in the secondary, they're difficult to tackle, in different ways," Dantonio said of Wells and Ringer. "The thing that you see is they both attack the line of scrimmage and they both have a lot of confidence in themselves. That's the key ingredient.
"And they both have toughness."