Big Ten

Fitting that running backs could play biggest role in Big Ten Championship Game

Fitting that running backs could play biggest role in Big Ten Championship Game

INDIANAPOLIS — It's December in the Midwest, and the conference of Red Grange, Archie Griffin and Ron Dayne again looks like it could be decided by the guys toting the rock.

How fitting that Saturday night's Big Ten Championship Game in Indy will feature two of the best running backs in the conference. Wisconsin and Penn State boast great defenses, and the Nittany Lions in particular have had success with an explosive passing attack this season. But it's a pretty safe bet that Penn State's Saquon Barkley and Wisconsin's Corey Clement will be relied on the most by their respective teams in pursuit of a conference title.

In each of the last two Big Ten title games, running backs have played starring roles. Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott turned in the first of a trio of jaw-dropping postseason performances here in 2014, rushing for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Last year it was Michigan State's LJ Scott, who carried the ball 14 times and finally plunged into the end zone to cap the Spartans' epic game-winning drive. Perhaps Saturday will bring the next star turn for a Big Ten back.

Barkley is riding high at the moment, named earlier this week the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and the Big Ten Running Back of the Year. The honors are definitely deserved, as while Barkley wasn't the conference's leading rusher, he was its most "must-watch" player. Barkley is not just fantastic at all the things that make a running back great, but he adds highlight-reel plays to the routine ones, juking and hurdling defenders on a shockingly regular basis.

But don't let the fact that he wasn't the league's leading rusher fool you, he's got the stats, too. Barkley rushed for 1,219 yards on the ground — averaging better than 101 yards a game — also scoring a conference-best 15 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 21 passes for 327 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns.

"I'm really proud of him, as good as he's doing on the football field, he's doing just as well in the classroom. He's probably doing better in the community. He's been great when it comes to community service, how he's handled all this success that's happened so quickly for him. He's handled it better probably than any young player I've ever been around.," Penn State head coach James Franklin said during Friday's press conference. "I think that's one of the reasons we've probably had the success we've had, is I think it says a lot about your team when your best players are great guys, are great teammates."

Wisconsin's defense has been excellent this season, one of the three or four best in the country, and it has experience in shutting down top-tier backs like LSU's Leonard Fournette and Northwestern's Justin Jackson, who was the Big Ten's leading rusher. But Barkley is a different kind of challenge.

"Saquon Barkley is a heck of a football player, really talented, can make things happen even when it's not necessarily blocked clean or whatever it may be," Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said Friday. "I think when you add the fact of what they're doing, (quarterback Trace) McSorley, the receivers, whether it's him running the ball, pushing down the field, our defense will be tested in a big way. We've got to make sure that we play good assignment football. Penn State forces you to defend the whole field, not just the run game, not just the passing game. We've got to do a great job of playing individual assignment football, but then ultimately team football. Once the ball declares, we have to get as many hats to it as we can. He is an extremely talented, good football player. I enjoyed watching him until we started getting ready to play him this week. He's a heck of a player."

Everything Chryst said is by design. Franklin gave a pretty good scouting report of what teams have tried to do to slow down what's been an explosive Penn State offense, though no one's stopped the Lions for about two months, as they enter the Big Ten title game on an eight-game win streak. And Franklin expected a similar strategy from Wisconsin, thankful to have Barkley, who can break out against any defense.

"Saquon Barkley I think is going to keep 'em honest," Franklin said. "He's had one of these years around the offensive line where, you know, he kind of pounds and struggles and fights and scratches and crawls for any yards he can get. Then usually at some point during the game, usually at a critical time, he breaks a big one for us. Their game plan is going to be similar to what we saw the last four or five games of the year. People are going to try to overload us in the box. They're going to blitz and twist the front to cause challenges with our offensive line, eliminate Saquon from beating them. They're going to play the secondary probably off and soft and going to say, 'We're not going to let Saquon run the ball, and we're not going to give up explosive plays.' Because those have been the two secrets to our success on offense: big plays in the passing game and Saquon Barkley being able to make plays as well. I don't see that formula changing against us."

While Barkley comes in with the hardware, he's hardly the only star running back in Saturday night's matchup. Wisconsin boasts its own excellent back in Corey Clement, the senior who after an apprenticeship under Melvin Gordon and James White has emerged as the latest in the incredibly long line of star Badger backs.

Clement was banged up last season, limiting what was supposed to be his break-out campaign. But this season, he's shown what we've all known he's been capable of. He rushed for 1,140 yards on the season, scoring 13 rushing touchdowns. And he's been especially terrific of late, breaking the 100-yard mark six times in the last seven games and in each of the last four games. He scored seven touchdowns, more than half his season total, in the last four games.

It seems like more of the same for Wisconsin, which has had great success running the ball for as long as many fans can remember. Look at the Badgers' all-time rushing list. Eight of the top 13 names on that list have played in the last 20 years: Dayne (1), Montee Ball (2), Gordon (3), Anthony Davis (4), White (5), P.J. Hill (6), John Clay (10) and Clement (13).

Chryst has been around for the careers of a lot of those guys. After playing at Wisconsin, he was a Badgers assistant in 2002 and then from 2005 to 2011 before a three-year stint as the head coach at Pitt and now his current job as the Badgers' head coach.

"I've been lucky to be with a lot of them," Chryst said. "They're all so different. I think each individual player's journey either to Wisconsin or once they're there sets them apart. Then certainly they all have different styles, playing with different lines, quarterbacks. So they're all very different. Corey has done a nice job this year. I've enjoyed watching him grow. I think he has taken steps forward this year. He's been playing at a good level. We're going to need him to continue to grow and get better because, you know, we're going to be tested differently. I've loved what he's done and meant to this team. Can't and wouldn't compare him to all the other guys because they're all so different."

And just as Chryst pointed out the immense challenge of stopping Barkley, Franklin discussed the task of stopping Clement — not to mention talented backups Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw.

"They have a very diverse running game, do a lot of different things," Franklin said. "It starts with their O-line and tight ends. Obviously the running back is special. ... They have a 235- pound back who makes plays. They have a really diverse running game. When you're able to impose your will in the running game on people, be able to do different things in terms of giving different looks like formation or different plays, whether it's power or whether it's lead, a lot of different things that they try to do, counter as well, then be able to play-action off of it, people are getting frustrated trying to put an extra guy in the box, be overly aggressive to stop the run, it creates one-on-one situations on the perimeter, creates chunk plays for them."

Without a doubt, these are two of the three best running backs in the Big Ten, Jackson being the other. It should be an absolute treat to see them compete Saturday night, but it's a downright necessity for their teams: In addition to a Big Ten title on the line, the winner could snag a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?