Power Ranking the Big Ten Running Backs Entering Week 3

By Connor Muldowney

The Big Ten didn’t have quite the week they expected to have in week two but there were some solid performances at the running back position.

Just like my conference power rankings, Michigan State is on top of the running back rankings as well.  The Spartans look like the most promising team in the conference and the only undefeated team left that seemingly has a chance at representing the Big Ten in the BCS title game.

In a conference that is chocked full of agile quarterbacks, the running backs on some teams take a back seat in the running game.  Here are the running back power rankings entering week three of play.

1. Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State  Last week: 1

Bell is off to a hot start this season and has been in the early hunt for the coveted Heisman trophy.  He is the defending No. 1 running back in my power rankings and for good reason.  The junior running back had 18 carries for 70 yards and two touchdowns last week and will look to run the ball down the throats of Notre Dame on Saturday night.  With the Spartan passing game still developing and maturing, they will rely on Bell to carry the offensive load for the time being.  Look for him to help out the pass game as well with some catches out of the backfield.  He will make a strong case once again this week for No. 1 in the power rankings and Heisman trophy consideration.

Season: 62 carries, 280 yards, 4 TD

2. Nebraska Running Backs  Last week: 5

Rex Burkhead found himself in an unfortunate situation following a week one victory, being sidelined for at least a week with an injury to his MCL.  Nebraska doesn’t want to risk any serious long-term injury to their star running back, so the possibility of him missing week three is highly likely.  Burkhead had just three carries in week one for 68 yards before his injury and then backup Ameer Abdullah found himself getting the bulk of attempts.  Abdullah is a 5’9″ 180-pound back that has put up solid numbers so far for the Cornhuskers.  He ran the ball 16 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday.  He is just 11 carries shy of his total from last season.  This is a two-headed monster for the newest Big Ten team that could separate themselves from the rest.

Combined Season Total: 34 carries, 268 yards, 3 TD

3. Venric Mark, Northwestern  Last week: 8

The Wildcats have featured potent offenses for the past few seasons and this year is no different.  Venric Mark has emerged as the go-to guy in Evanston and the junior looks solid to start the 2012 campaign.  Last week, Mark rushed the ball 24 times for an impressive 123 yards and his first touchdown of the year in a win over Vanderbilt, 23-13.  He has had more than double the carries through two games this year than he had all of last season and also double the yards from a year ago.  Mark is much improved and will be relied on heavily with a two-quarterback system developing at Northwestern.

Season: 38 carries, 205 yards, 1 TD

4. Damon Bullock, Iowa  Last week: 3

Bullock is a workhorse, carrying the ball 53 times this season which is good for second most in the conference.  Last year’s leading rusher, Marcus Coker transferred to Stony Brook after an on-campus incident that he was involved in and being suspended for the team’s bowl game.  Coker was looking like the second best running back in the conference last season, running the ball for 1,394 yards and 15 touchdowns, second to only Montee Ball of Wisconsin. Bullock has gone from backup to starter in the matter of a couple months due to transfers and injuries, but only had 53 yards on 22 carries last week.  Iowa’s offense has been poor thus far, scoring just 27 points in two games. Bullock has had five times as many carries this year than he did all of last season.  Did I mention he can catch the ball, too?  He had five catches on Saturday for 56 yards in a disappointing 9-6 loss to Iowa State.

Season: 52 carries, 203 yards, 1 TD

5. Montee Ball, Wisconsin  Last week: 2

Without a doubt, Ball was the top running back in the conference heading into the 2012 season after finishing as a finalist for the Heisman last season.  This season has been complete opposite to Ball’s success from a year ago.  Ball had just 15 carries for 61 yards and no touchdowns in Saturday’s road loss to Oregon State, 10-7.  Ball has just one touchdown through two games, an alarming number given the fact that he scored 39 total touchdowns last year, almost breaking the NCAA record.  His longest run this season was just one of 14 yards and posts just a 3.9 yard per carry average opposed to 6.3 a year ago.  He has yet to get a break, but playing a relatively stingy Utah State defense this week should give Ball the confidence he needs going into conference play.

Season: 47 carries, 181 yards, 1 TD

6. Donnell Kirkwood, Minnesota  Last week: 7

Minnesota possesses two solid running backs, only one of them can throw, too. Donnell Kirkwood is the starting running back for the Gophers, while quarterback MarQueis Gray acts as the team’s number two rusher.  Kirkwood currently has four less carries than Gray and less yards rushing as well. With that being said, the redshirt sophomore is still in the top half of the power rankings after running the ball 17 times last week for 70 yards and his first touchdown of the season.  Kirkwood has just under half the rushing attempts this year as a first-year starter for Minnesota than he did all of last season as the backup.  He will take on another weak defense in Western Michigan this week whose strong suit is the offense, scoring 52 points and racking up 631 yards in a win last week.

Season: 30 carries, 151 yards, 1 TD

7. Akeem Shavers, Purdue  Last week: 6

Shavers swapped spots in the power rankings with Donnell Kirkwood this week after a weak performance Saturday against the Fighting Irish.  He ran the ball 12 times for a laughable 37 yards in a game in which they lost starting quarterback Robert Marve for the season with a torn ACL. The offense is suffering and first-year starter Shavers is the main offensive threat as of right now.  Once senior Ralph Bolden comes back, leading rusher in 2009 and 2011, they Purdue offense will begin to perk up and lessen the blow of losing Marve. Last season, Bolden and Shavers split carries and combined for over 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns and looked to do the same this season until Bolden suffered the second knee injury of his college career.

Season: 23 carries, 111 yards, 1 TD

8. Josh Ferguson, Illinois  Last week: 11

Ferguson is quite possibly the only bright spot for the Illini offense this season. After a poor week one performance in a win versus Western Michigan, he carried the ball 11 times for just 38 yards.  The redshirt freshman rebounded in week two for a strong 14-carry, 101 yard performance, but still seeking his first career touchdown.  These numbers, however, didn’t do much help in a week two blowout loss to Arizona State, 45-14.  Ferguson has split carries with sophomore Donovonn Young this season, but is starting to emerge as the clear number one running back after an impressive week two performance.  The first-year stater will continue to improve and could be one of the conference’s best running backs by the time he graduates.

Season: 25 carries, 139 yards, 0 TD

9. D’Angelo Roberts, Indiana  Last week: 10

Indiana has had an interesting start to the 2012 season.  First, they win their first two games, stirring up some excitement in Bloomington.  Second, quarterback Tre Roberson makes the offense look potent to begin the season, but broke his leg, sidelining himself for the rest of the year.  Third, the Hoosiers have four running backs with nine or more carries in a week two win against Massachusetts.  Roberts is number one on the depth chart, but true freshman Tevin Coleman has made a strong case for the job. Roberts had an average performance Saturday, running the ball 10 times for 53 yards while Coleman had an even better week, carrying the ball 14 times for 86 yards.  It will be interesting to see if Roberts keeps the starting job as well as his first touchdown of the season.

Season: 32 carries, 120 yards, 0 TD

10. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State  Last week: 4

No offense to Carlos Hyde, but Ohio State already has a running back in the form of quarterback Braxton Miller and he seems to be doing just fine carrying the offense.  Hyde played very little on Saturday, carrying the ball just seven times for 27 yards before spraining his MCL, making him questionable for this week’s matchup with California.  The Buckeyes have one of the best rushing offenses in college football, ranking 14th in the nation in rushing with 275 yards per game.  This is no thanks to Hyde, who has 20 less carries than Miller at quarterback, but will need to contribute more to the offense if he wants to continue carrying the ball with regularity.

Season: 24 carries, 109 yards, 2 TD

11. Bill Belton, Penn State  Last week: 9

Sophomore Bill Belton is the running back for the only Big Ten team without a victory this season through two weeks of play.  That being said, he missed the game against Virginia last week with an injured ankle and the offense took a hit because of it. Belton’s 13 carries this season equal the amount of carries he had in all of 2011 because Silas Redd carried the load on the ground before transferring to USC this offseason. Belton also caught his first career touchdown pass this season, his first touchdown of his college career.  Belton’s backup, Derek Day, ran the ball 18 times on Saturday for 47 yards in place of the injured running back.  However, both Day and Belton are questionable for this week’s game, leaving the running back situation as an area for concern.

Season: 13 carries, 53 yards, 0 TD

12. Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan  Last week: 12

It’s hard putting Toussaint last in the power rankings considering all of the talent and potential he possesses as a running back.  He missed week one against Alabama because of suspension and made a comeback last week against Air Force, running the ball just eight times for an embarrassing seven yards and no touchdowns.  His longest rush in the game was just five yards and he looked very rusty.  Give him some time and Michigan will finally have someone to take the pressure off Denard Robinson‘s shoulders and carry the ball effectively and consistently.  They face a weak opponent in Massachusetts this Saturday and Toussaint may only play a half because chances are Michigan will have the game in hand by halftime. This is his rebound week and he will rebound in thunderous fashion, completely running over Massachusetts.

Season: 8 carries, 7 yards, 0 TD

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