Rushing offense, defense still key in Big Ten
With a full week of league play in the books, a familiar trend has emerged in the Big Ten.
Running the ball - and stopping others from doing likewise - are going to be huge for teams hoping to contend for the conference title this season.
Five Big Ten teams rank in the top 25 nationally in rushing offense, the most of any conference in the country. The Big Ten is also first with six teams ranked in the top 20 in rushing defense, and four of them; Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan, are among the top 10.
Indiana is the only league team in the top 30 in passing offense.
''This is a physical league. It has good backs. It has good schemes in the run game,'' said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, whose Badgers remain first in the Big Ten with 300.6 rushing yards per game heading into this weekend's game against Northwestern. ''You've got to be able to stop the run. If you can't stop the run, it becomes very difficult to play defense.''
No. 4 Ohio State pulled out the most high-profile league win last weekend, rallying on the road to beat Northwestern 40-30.
The Buckeyes (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) can thank running back Carlos Hyde for helping them stay perfect. Hyde ran for three touchdowns in a 13 1/2-minute span of the second half - including the go-ahead TD with 5:22 left - as Ohio State rallied from a 10-point deficit. Hyde, who missed three games because of suspension, finished with a season-best 168 yards.
''Right now the strength of our program is that offensive line,'' Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. ''They're exactly what we're looking for.''
Nebraska (4-1, 1-0) opened Big Ten play with senior quarterback Taylor Martinez on the bench with an injured toe. With Tommy Armstrong Jr. making just his second start, Ameer Abdullah came through with the best game of his career. Abdullah had 225 yards rushing and two touchdowns in a 39-19 win over Illinois (3-2, 0-1) and shared co-offensive player of the week honors with Hyde.
The success of Abdullah and Imani Cross, who had 76 yards rushing, kept the Huskers from asking Armstrong to do too much. He only had to throw it 13 times, finishing with 135 yards passing and two TDs.
''It was huge. I think it always starts with establishing the run, and on the defensive side of the ball playing the run. I think that's where it begins, on the line of scrimmage. It sure opens everything else up,'' Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. ''The success that Ameer had, and obviously for him to put up that kind of yardage we were playing well up front...is a real positive for us.''
Northwestern (218.4 yards) and Minnesota (215.8) remain in the top 25 of rushing offense despite losses last week. Those run-heavy teams will likely have trouble keeping up their gaudy run numbers the deeper they get into Big Ten play.
Especially when they have to face Michigan State (4-1, 1-0).
Iowa (4-2, 1-1) entered last week's game against the Spartans averaging 244 yards rushing a game and trailed only Air Force and Army in rushing attempts. But Michigan State was so prolific in stuffing Mark Weisman and the Hawkeyes that they ran the ball just 16 times - including four carries in the second half - for 23 yards in a 26-14 loss.
Michigan State is now far and away the nation's best rushing defense at a minuscule 51.2 yards per game.
Coach Mark Dantonio credits his team's experience on the depth chart and in the coaching box for those tremendous numbers.
The Spartans host Indiana (3-2, 1-0) on Saturday.
''First of all, as a coaching staff we've been together for a long time,'' Dantonio said of his team's success stopping the run. Defensive coordinator Pat ''Narduzzi does a great job calling our defense when there's a problem. He can fix it midstream.''
The Buckeyes and Hawkeyes, who each have the week off before facing each other in the Horseshoe on Oct. 19, are each allowing less than 90 yards a game on the ground. No. 18 Michigan (5-0, 1-0) is right behind them in ninth with 90.4 yards heading into Saturday's game at Penn State (3-2, 0-1).
Even so, those teams will still likely have to defend a heavy dose of running plays.
''It's been a big part of the league this year, and it's been a big part of this league for a long time,'' Andersen said. ''This year it seems to be a very talented crew that's running the ball, from top to bottom.''
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