Iowa running back Mark Weisman lowered his shoulder and rumbled in between tackles, bouncing off Gophers defenders for an 11-yard gain.
Rain dripping off the Hawkeyes’ facemasks, they lined up for the next play, and quarterback Jake Rudock handed the football off to Weisman again: 5 yards.
And again: 2 more yards.
That sequence — part of Iowa’s 23-7 victory at Minnesota last season — was a throwback display of Big Ten smash-mouth football.
At 6 feet, 240 pounds, Weisman averaged more than 17 carries per game last season, steadily marching down the field in short spurts that wore down opposing defenses.
The longest run of Weisman’s Hawkeyes career is just 44 yards, which pales in comparison to the numbers put up by other celebrated running backs — and quarterbacks — in the Big Ten. It’s still a conference dominated by rushing, but the newly expanded Big Ten has embraced a new, fast-paced running style that quarterbacks, running backs and sometimes even receivers have embraced.
“That’s just the essence of the Big Ten. That’s the stigma that’s been placed on it — that all we do is 2 yards and a cloud of dust,” said Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, who led the Big Ten in rushing with 1,690 yards last season. “We really try to break that stigma.”
‘The game has changed’
As time passes, running backs’ value in the NFL has plummeted. But the Big Ten’s rushing numbers have gradually increased across the board over the past 10 seasons.
In 2004, the conference averaged 1,863 rushing yards per team. By 2013, the number was up to 2,401 yards.
More and more, teams line up three to five receivers out wide instead of jamming multiple tight ends and tailbacks near the trenches. In these passing-oriented formations, teams are still finding ways to run the ball. Even the Gophers, a noted power-running team, were creative with offensive play calls last year.
In a 34-23 victory over Nebraska last season, Gophers wide receiver Donovahn Jones ran the ball four times for 42 yards. Minnesota also fooled
Nebraska’s defense in that game, trotting out a set with offensive lineman Ben Lauer at receiver.
With more players lined up outside, offenses can be innovative and the field often gets stretched — putting extra stress on the opposing team’s linebackers and defensive backs.
“You kind of scramble, and defenses maybe want to come and pursue that. Then you’ve got guys open [downfield],” Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner said.
And when the field is stretched, quarterbacks take advantage, rushing for big gains.
“You’re spreading everybody out, and consequently the quarterback becomes a running threat if he has any agility at all,” said Terry Shea, a former NFL quarterbacks coach who has privately trained Washington Redskins dual-threat quarterback Robert Griffin III.
The Big Ten has been ground zero for the development of dual-threat quarterbacks. Denard Robinson of Michigan rushed for 1,702 yards in 2010. Russell Wilson, Wisconsin’s 2011 quarterback, led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory in February by using both his arm and legs to overcome defenses.
Braxton Miller — now an Ohio State senior — has rushed for 3,054 yards in his career and is considered a strong contender for the Heisman Trophy this season.
In 2013, Miller’s rival, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, had 11 rushing touchdowns and Minnesota’s Leidner had seven.
Gardner was second on the team with rushing yards, totaling 483, and the Wolverines were 11th in the conference in rushing.
“Last year … I was the running game a lot of the time,” Gardner said.
But by running more, quarterbacks are exposed to more potential injuries.
Miller is well-accustomed to running in the Big Ten, but he knows the injury concerns all too well and is looking for playmaking help this year.
Let’s not get physical
David Cobb is versatile and might be Minnesota’s most effective running back since Laurence Maroney. He ran for 1,202 yards last season in limited playing time and gained the attention of his peers along the way.
“He’s a tough guy. He’s a really quiet guy,” Abdullah said of Cobb. “I remember playing him this year and he was just so consistent — 4 or 5 yards and before you know it, he’s rushed for almost 200 yards on you.”
Abdullah enters the 2014 season with 4,914 all-purpose yards — more than any other active Football Bowl Subdivision player. He is under 6 feet and 200 pounds but makes gains by being elusive instead of bruising — hitting holes, juking defenders and changing games on a dime.
“That’s just how I want to go about this year, being electrifying,” Abdullah said.
The Big Ten boasts plenty of other fleet-footed running backs.
Indiana’s Tevin Coleman buried the Gophers in a 42-39 loss last season, rushing for 108 yards. Coleman broke one touchdown run for 55 yards, recorded two receptions for 51 yards and even returned kicks.
Jeremy Langford of Michigan State rushed for 1,422 yards last season, utilizing a fast-paced running style similar to Coleman’s and Abdullah’s.
Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon displayed versatility similar to Cobb’s last season, running over defenders on the interior or outrunning defensive backs on the edge for 1,609 yards.
“I feel I’m one of the best,” Gordon said of his status among the nation’s running backs. “At the end of the year, I want to be sitting here saying, ‘I’m the best.’”
More changes on the way
With the additions of Maryland and Rutgers this season, the Big Ten not only expands to 14 teams but also to the East Coast, where the style of play has historically deviated from the power running that’s customary in the Midwest.
As a result, Abdullah said there will “definitely” be more changes to the conference’s style of play.
Rutgers has a decent lineage of running backs, but the team recorded 3,063 receiving yards and 1,684 rushing yards last season.
When Gordon was asked what he thinks of Maryland coming in, he admitted to only knowing one of the team’s players — electrifying receiver Stefon Diggs. As a freshman in the 2012 season, Diggs averaged 172.4 all-purpose yards per game — good for eighth-best in the nation.
Although the Big Ten has become more versatile offensively, the new teams are still believers in the longstanding stereotype.
“To me, Big Ten football starts with physicality, and I think you had better get your program ready for the physical battle that is going to happen up front,” Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood said.
Come conference play, those pre-conceived notions could change — just like the identity of the conference that used to win titles behind burly offensive lines and bowling ball running backs.