Wisconsin’s prodigious rushing attack is the exception in the Big Ten West, which is home to five of the six worst ground games in the conference.
Led by freshman Jonathan Taylor, the unbeaten Badgers are averaging a conference-best 245 yards rushing per game. The other six West teams have a combined average of 139 and, maybe not coincidentally, none has more than five wins.
Nebraska ranked among the Big Ten’s top four rushing offenses from 2011-14 but has been sixth, ninth and now 13th in three years under Mike Riley. The Cornhuskers’ 122-yard average is their lowest since 2005 and on track to be the program’s third-lowest since 1948.
“We certainly never intended it to be like this with the running stats,” Riley said. He added that the Huskers would continue to try to run “and then do what we need to do to win the game.”
Northwestern, which features three-time 1,000-yard rusher Justin Jackson, is managing just 128 yards per game, its lowest average since 2009. The Wildcats have taken to getting the ball to Jackson via the pass. He caught a season-high seven for 51 yards against Michigan State last week.
“You just take what the defense gives you, especially the last two weeks playing two of the best rushing defenses in the Big Ten but also in the nation in Iowa and Michigan State,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “If (they) do load the box or play a scheme that is going to try to do everything they can to stop the run and overload the box, you can still get the ball in your best playmaker’s hands.”
Iowa’s 131-yard average is 41 under last year’s and lowest since 2012, when the Hawkeyes went 4-8 and won two conference games.
Illinois is last in the conference, at 121 yards, and has been no better than third from the bottom since 2011. Purdue has improved, going from 14th last year to ninth. The Boilermakers (153 ypg) have five players running for between 21 and 87 yards a games and are averaging a respectable 4.55 yards per carry.
Minnesota is fourth in the Big Ten at 182 yards per game, but that’s mostly a product of running the ball on 66 percent of its plays. Only Wisconsin, at 69 percent, runs more.
Strong ground games tend to translate to success in the Big Ten. In each year but one since 2011, the top rushing team reached the conference championship game or the College Football Playoff. This season, the top seven rushing teams have a combined record of 42-14 and the bottom seven are 25-31.
Nebraska’s Riley expected a better running game this season. Devine Ozigbo went over 100 yards in three straight games, but in the last two games the Huskers have been held to 44 and 40 yards. They’ll be missing two injured offensive linemen against Northwestern.
Asked what it will take to improve, Riley said: “I think that it’s probably pretty simply the whole idea of winning the one-on-one matchups so much, and then from there being able to do that kind of repeatedly so you have good running stats at the end. I don’t have any other magic formula. You’ve got to block them. I think we have good runners. I think we did miss a couple of opportunities the other night, but you’ve got to block.”
Iowa has been beset by injuries to the offensive line. The Hawkeyes have played four different starting combinations this season but have had the same group for three straight games. Coach Kirk Ferentz said other factors are having a first-year quarterback, a true freshman and redshirt freshman at the tackle spots and a limited number of returning receivers.
“We don’t have guys stacked up on the shelf. That’s never been the nature of our program,” Ferentz said. “We have to develop our guys. We’re in a little bit of a developmental mode. But that being said, it’s November now, so it’s not like this is our first week out or anything like that. We’ll take it a game at a time, play at a time, and see if we can’t carve out a couple yards.”