Schuttin' from the Hip: B1G backs are running away with all the attention right now
Each week, Saturday Tradition managing editor Dustin Schutte offers his spin on what matters most in the B1G.
The year of the (B1G) running back
Run the damn ball.
It’s not just Sandra Bullock’s comical line in The Blind Side anymore. That’s the offensive approach several B1G teams have adopted through the infant stages of the 2021 season. Based on the production so far, it’s a pretty smart decision.
Let’s cut to the chase: B1G backfields are loaded. Just 3 weeks into the campaign and already 9 running backs have eclipsed 250 yards on the ground, most of any Power 5 league. If all 9 keep producing at that rate, all would hit the 1,000-yard mark by the end of the regular season.
No need to wiggle the rabbit-ear antennas or pop the side of the television box with a firm forehand. Right now, this looks like your grandfather’s B1G. The only difference is that it’s no longer “3 yards and a cloud of dust,” it’s more like “43 yards, end zone or bust.”
Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III has been college football’s most dominant force through 3 weeks. He’s flashed the lethal combination of power and speed on his way to a nation-best 493 yards on only 57 carries. The senior transfer scored on a 75-yard touchdown run on the opening play of the game in the season opener against Northwestern. It was the first of Walker’s 5 touchdowns on the ground this year.
Michigan’s Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins have combined for 688 yards and 11 touchdowns in 3 run-heavy victories. Their early success on the ground had Jim Harbaugh comparing Michigan’s offensive approach to General George Patton “getting his job done on the ground.”
Ohio State true freshman TreVeyon Henderson has 346 yards and broke Archie Griffin’s program single-game rushing record in last weekend’s win over Tulsa. Minnesota’s Trey Potts stepped in for the injured Mohamed Ibrahim, the reigning B1G Running Back of the Year, and has accounted for 333 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Tyler Goodson has rushed for over 300 yards at Iowa. Chez Mellusi sits at 265 after transferring from Clemson to Wisconsin. Maryland has depended on Tayon Fleet-Davis, who’s hit 251 yards in a pass-heavy offense. Even on a bad Northwestern team, Evan Hull has managed to crank out 262 yards.
What’s even crazier about those numbers? All of the running backs have faced at least one Power 5 defense.
It’s shades of 2014. The B1G flexed its muscle as a run-first league that season. Seven backs topped 1,000 yards, 6 of whom eclipsed 1,500. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon raced for 2,587 yards and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman racked up 2,036.
Is the B1G on the verge of having that type of production on the ground 7 years later? It’s still far too early to tell. But if the first 3 weeks is a crystal ball into what to expect the rest of the season, it’s going to be a special year for the league’s ball carriers.
SEC gonna say SEC things …
The SEC pundits were quick to dismiss Penn State’s victory last weekend, weren’t they?
Less than 48 hours after the Nittany Lions closed out a 28-20 victory over Auburn, college football analyst Greg McElroy and SEC Network host Paul Finebaum wiped out Penn State’s quality win with only a few sentences on Monday morning.
“If Penn State was in the SEC West, they’d probably finish fourth,” McElory said on WJOX 94.5.
Perhaps McElroy needs a refresher. Penn State’s win over Auburn was the second Top 25 victory of the season, defeating No. 12 Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium in the season-opener. The following week, the Nittany Lions dominated a Ball State team that finished 7-1 in 2020.
Forgive me if I’m not buying Penn State’s 4th-place finish in the SEC West.
That wasn’t the only ridiculous statement muttered during the McElory and Cubelic in the Morning show on Monday. Given the chance to respond, Finebaum essentially doubled down on McElroy’s comments.
“As good of a game as this was in terms of hype and build-up, within the SEC it wasn’t that big of a deal,” Finebaum said. “I know that sounds like a shot at Penn State, I don’t mean it that way. But if Penn State is the best the B1G has to offer, they’re in for a terrible year.”
It wasn’t that big of a deal.
So that’s why Penn State diverted from its typical B1G White Out game and bumped it up to a September showdown against Auburn? And why College GameDay made the trip to State College on Saturday? And also why the SEC-B1G matchup was ABC’s Game of the Week?
Look, it’s fine to acknowledge that the SEC might be the best conference in college football. That’s a perfectly reasonable stance through the first 3 weeks of the season.
Arguing that the B1G is so far behind the “mighty” SEC that Penn State would finish fourth in a division? Saying last weekend’s game was “no big deal” outside of the B1G? That’s over-the-top absurdity.
Coaches speak on officiating
Rare are the occasions when a college football coach makes a public gripe about the officiating in a game. Fortunately, Tom Allen and James Franklin were willing to buck that trend for at least one week.
Allen’s grievance came from a targeting call that resulted in the ejection of starting linebacker Micah McFadden.
McFadden did make incidental helmet-to-helmet contact with Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, but there was no ill-intention. At the time of the ejection, Indiana was ahead 14-0.
The Bearcats scored 10 unanswered points to close the half after the ejection and ultimately went on to defeat the Hoosiers 38-24.
“I did review it, and I totally disagree with the call. …I think a lot of us coaches, we talk about this a lot. There’s a lot of agreement that the rule right now needs to be evaluated. The ejection for something like that is not what it needs to be.” — Tom Allen, Indiana
Up in Happy Valley, Franklin took a not-so-subtle jab at the SEC officiating crew that accounted for more than a few blunders during Saturday’s game.
Bad calls went both ways inside Beaver Stadium throughout the game. Penn State was on the wrong end of an intentional grounding call, a lost down and a bad spot on a 4th-and-1.
After the game, Franklin was visibly fired up after the nail-biting victory. Lip-readers watching the game were able to interpret a few of the choice words he shouted when the final pass fell incomplete.
“I was fiery last week for a lot of reasons because I felt we were fighting more than Auburn. I’m not going to get into the details of that, but I felt like we were fighting a lot.” — James Franklin, Penn State
Kent State vs. Maryland: Last week, Kent State actually put up a pretty good fight against a strong Iowa team. Still, Maryland has more than enough talent to run away with this one. Mike Locksley should put a heavier emphasis on the rushing attack and give Taulia Tagovailoa a bit of relief this weekend.
Indiana-Western Kentucky: This is all about Indiana’s mental state after a 1-2 start. If Michael Penix Jr. is hitting his targets and not tossing interceptions, the Hoosiers will be just fine. He’s already thrown a career-high 6 picks — 2 more than last season. If he’s a turnover machine again, Western Kentucky is capable of pulling off an upset.
Illinois vs. Purdue: Purdue’s offensive line needs to hold up against a feisty Illinois defense. If that’s the case, the Boilermakers shouldn’t have much of an issue improving to 3-1. If the Illini can consistently get pressure and keep Jack Plummer off balance, they may have a shot to get their second B1G win of the season.
Rutgers vs. No. 19 Michigan: Can Michigan run all over Rutgers’ defense? Are the Scarlet Knights capable of creating enough turnovers to hang around? Those are the biggest questions for the B1G opener between these teams. The Wolverines are a heavy favorite, but the Scarlet Knights play with a lot of pride. This might be more interesting than many expect.
Nebraska vs. No. 20 Michigan State: Fixing the little things is key for Nebraska. The defense is good enough to keep this close, but if the offense and special teams units continue their run of debilitating errors, Michigan State is going to capitalize.
No. 12 Notre Dame vs. No. 18 Wisconsin: Both defenses are really good, which should make for a hard-nosed, old-school contest in the Windy City. Can Graham Mertz shake the red zone woes? If so, Wisconsin has better talent offensively than Notre Dame and adds a marquee victory to its resumé.
Michigan State (-4.5) vs. Nebraska
It’s only been 3 weeks (technically 4 counting Week 0), but Michigan State has looked like a more complete team than Nebraska. This line first started at -3.5 in favor of the Spartans, and though it’s moved a full point, it still feels like an easy MSU cover.
Michigan State has been scoring points on the ground with Kenneth Walker III and through the air with Payton Thorne. Yes, Nebraska played Oklahoma last week, but this is probably the most explosive team the Huskers have seen this season.
After watching Nebraska struggle with the same old issues through four weeks, Michigan State at -4.5 in front of a home crowd is as close to a guarantee as we get in Week 4.