Big Ten. Teams’ ground control grinding out yardage, wins

By David Ginsburg 
AP Sports Writer

Three yards and a cloud of dust? Not good enough, not this year for the Big Ten.

In a conference that has long relied on the ground game, the Big Ten currently averages 4.66 yards per rush. That’s only fourth-best among the Power Five conferences, but the Big Ten also has seven running backs averaging more than 100 yards a game — tops among 10 Bowl Subdivision leagues. At the moment, seven of the top 25 rushers in FBS are from the Big Ten; at the end of last season, there were only two.

The yards might be harder to come by once conference play begins in earnest, but in an age when many college teams seek victory through the air, the Big Ten has so far found the surest route to be on the ground.

“Teams want to run the ball,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “You might win the game if you throw for 350 yards, but if you’ve run for 350, you probably won the game.”

Wisconsin true freshman Jonathan Taylor leads the conference with 310 yards in two games and is averaging a whopping 8.9 yards per carry.

“Certainly Jonathan has done some good things in his first two games, and we’re really glad we got him,” said Badgers coach Paul Chryst, who recruited Taylor out of New Jersey.

Another true freshman, J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State, is averaging 126.5 yards per game and racked up 181 in the opener against Indiana, a school record for a freshman.

Even the quarterbacks are getting into the swing of things.

Brian Lewerke has thrown for 411 yards and four scores, but he’s also Michigan State’s leading rusher with 150 yards. As the focal point of coach Mark Dantonio’s read-option attack, Lewerke ran for two scores last week against Western Michigan — including a 61-yard gem.

“I think that’s something that he was able to do in high school, so he’s sort of gifted in that way,” Dantonio said. “He’s not afraid. He’s got great ball handling skills, you know, rides out, fakes well, things of that nature. I think it’s been a positive.”

Maryland opened the season with a 51-41 upset of Texas, then scored nine touchdowns in a 63-17 rout of Towson. Operating with true freshman Kasim Hill at quarterback, the Terrapins have relied heavily on a running game that’s amassed 630 yards compared to 386 passing.

Ty Johnson has been virtually unstoppable. He’s averaging 15.1 yards for each of his 17 carries, which is impressive except when compared with teammate Javon Leake, whose has 78 yards on four attempts (a 19.5 average).

“Having a good running game always helps,” coach DJ Durkin said.

That’s exactly how Penn State coach Jim Franklin feels. Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley is averaging 9.3 yards per attempt and stands third in the Big Ten with 260 yards rushing, behind only Taylor and Tre Bryant of Nebraska (299 yards).

Penn State’s run-pass option attack provides just enough balance to keep opposing defenses guessing what might come next. The Nittany Lions have peeled off nine straight games with at least 30 points, and Barkley is a big reason why.

“We’re not just going to hand the ball to him 35 times,” Franklin said of Barkley. “When he runs the ball, he’s going to be running into a good look. Then he’s got to have the ability to make that one free defender miss. Over his career, he’s been able to do that.”

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