Ground game rules in Big Ten this season

Tom Canavan
Associated Press

Newark, N.J. — The Big Ten traditionally has been a run-first conference.

Nothing has changed halfway through the current season.

Sure there are teams that run the spread offense or some degree of it and there are teams that can air the ball out.

The bottom line, though, is that the run continues to be the strength of the conference in this expansion season with Rutgers and Maryland joining the fold.

Four of the nation's top seven rushers in the country are from the Big Ten, and the number might have been higher had Rutgers runner Paul James not gone down with a knee injury.

Indiana's Tevin Coleman leads the nation in rushing, averaging 176.7 yards followed by Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon at 174.3. Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah is fourth at 146.3 and Minnesota's David Cobb is seventh at 136.5.

"You just look at the Big Ten for years and years and years and it always had a collection of great backs, every single year," Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said. "It's not different this year. And each week you have to be able to stop the run against those players because if you don't, it's going to be a long day for you."

The who's who for Purdue over the next month will be games against Cobb, Abdullah and Gordon. The season ends for the Boilermakers with a game against Coleman and Indiana.

"They are all good players but they are different players," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They have different ways of being productive. The bottom line is they are all difficult to defend."

Ferentz got a firsthand view of Coleman last weekend in a 45-29 victory. The quick junior ran for 219 yards, including touchdown runs of 83, 69 and 45 yards.

"He looked good on film," Ferentz said. "It's one thing seeing him on film and then you are on the field and witness him playing first hand. Really good players find a way to separate themselves out there and when he ran by our bench it was pretty impressive. Watching it on film it was 'Holy smokes this guy is really good.'"

Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said Coleman would have gained close to 1,300 or 1,400 yards last season had he not been hurt when he was closing in on 1,000 with three games left.

"We have to get the offensive line to be more consistent," Wilson said. "(Coleman) is a home-run guy who plays fast, plays hard, practices hard, is a great kid and good football player."

Like Coleman, Gordon is a burner once in the open. He needed 104 carries to hit 1,000-yard rushing in his career, and he already has rushed for 1,046 yards in six games this season. He has 13 touchdowns for the Badgers.

A senior, Cobb is a throwback power runner, a straight ahead, meat-and-potatoes type of guy. He has had two 200-yard games rushing this season.

Abdullah, who was held to 45 yards on 24 carries by Michigan State's defense, is a back that can do a little bit of everything. He has speed, can run with power and also be a slasher. He lead all active FBS backs with 6,089 all-purpose yards — the seventh player in Big Ten history to top the 6,000-yard plateau in all-purpose yards — and in number of 100-yard games rushing (21). The senior has had three 200-yard games rushing this season.

"They are really good and I think there is a commitment to running the football in this league because I think the coaches understand the importance of it," Nebraska coach Po Pelini said.

There is a reason to run the ball. The Big Ten is based in the north and the weather can influence games, especially in November and December when the cold, wind, rain and snow make throwing the ball a little more difficult.

"I don't know if weather forces you to run, but it doesn't hurt," Ferentz said. "If you got a runner like that it would be crazy not to accentuate their strengths."