Week 10 Picks: Where have all the rushing yards gone?
The Big Ten has the reputation for running the football, but it has largely been missing in 2023.
You’ve watched Nebraska’s run game all season, what grade would you give it?
I ask because as I was reading Purdue’s game notes this week, it noted that the Huskers lead the Big Ten in rushing. Even though I knew that to be true, my reaction to reading it was “wait, they do?” It doesn’t feel true. Nebraska has only had two 100-yard games this season and it happened in the same game with Heinrich Haarberg rushing for 157 yards and Anthony Grant 135 against Louisiana Tech.
You’d think the Big Ten’s leading rusher would be more memorable, have a defined star or at least have a stable of backs who were chopping up the carries but all getting it done. Maybe you’d even assume Michigan, which has obliterated every team on its schedule and has 2022 Heisman finalist Blake Corum in the backfield, was leading the league.
Nope, it’s Nebraska at 190.13 yards per game. Wisconsin leads the Big Ten at 4.77 yards per carry, though the Badgers have already lost their 1B back, Chez Mellusi, for the season and 1A back, Braelon Allen, is questionable this week after suffering a lower leg injury against Ohio State.
Last week in this space I noted that scoring was down in the Big Ten to a greater degree than what we’re seeing elsewhere in college football with the new clock rules. This week, it’s the run games.
Where are all the rushing yards? The Big Ten has a reputation to uphold.
Counter Read is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support this work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The conference has had multiple teams average more than 200 rushing yards per game every year since Nebraska joined in 2011. In 2014, the first year at 14 teams with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers, six Big Ten teams averaged more than 200. The Huskers have topped 200 rushing yards per game seven times in 13 seasons, including leading the Big Ten at 253.36 in 2012.
This year, it’s unlikely any team will reach that mark unless Nebraska does. Rutgers, second in the league at 178.75 yards per game, would need to average 242.50 over its final four games, and the Knights still have to play Ohio State, Iowa and Penn State. The Nittany Lions, third at 175.13 with Michigan still to play, would need 999 yards over the final four games (249.75 per game) to average 200. Minnesota (174.50) needs 5 more yards than Penn State (251 per game) to get there and has games left against Illinois, Purdue, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
The Huskers would need to average 219.75 yards per game to finish the regular season averaging 200, about 30 yards more per game than their current average. Nebraska only faces one team, Maryland, currently in the top five in the Big Ten in rush defense, so maybe there’s a slim chance the Huskers can keep the 200-plus conference streak alive but collectively the remaining opponents—Michigan State, the Terps, Wisconsin and Iowa—are allowing only 126 yards per game this season.
We should have a good idea if Nebraska has a shot by Saturday afternoon. You can read my full Michigan State preview below, but the Spartan defense might be able to challenge the Huskers on the ground. MSU is slightly above average in rushing success rate (58th) while it has been very good at limiting big gains on the ground, ranking seventh in collegefootballdata.com's rushing explosiveness allowed metric.
This sets up similarly to Nebraska games we’ve seen in the past. Michigan State’s defense has been on the field too much this season, and the Huskers are more than happy to take their time and stay committed to the run if a couple of big passes hit. That’s probably what happens Saturday and why I’m picking Nebraska to cover 3 points on the road.
The Huskers go to East Lansing with momentum while the Spartans have lost six straight. Neither team will care how this game looks, it’s only about the result. Nebraska has been pretty committed to that approach, and I think it will patiently chip away at MSU to come away with a win, and, once again, we’ll all have watched the Big Ten’s leading rush offense without it having felt that way. Pick: Nebraska -3
Oh, and I’d give the run game a B- (though I’d give the staff’s willingness to stick with it and get creative through a QB change and injuries to the top two backs an A).
On to the rest of the week in the Big Ten
The Conference of Broad Shoulders
Season Record: 35-32-3 (.521)
Last week stung a little bit. I went 2-3, missing out on a 4-1 week by 1.5 points. November, however, is when winning seasons are made. The bye weeks are done, meaning we’ve got seven Big Ten games to pick each week for four weeks. I’d like to be at .540 or better by the end of the regular season, just for pride. Assuming no more pushes, that’s going to require 17 wins over the next four weeks, which makes it pretty unlikely, but it’s good to have stretch goals, right?
Ohio State -18.5 at Rutgers (Prediction Tracker Average: OSU -19)
I’m a bit terrified of Ohio State’s ability to cover this one. Rutgers won’t be able to put up more than a score, maybe two, against this Buckeye defense, but can Ohio State’s offense do enough? After scoring 37 and 41 points against Maryland and Purdue respectively, the Buckeyes have put up 44 points total in the last two games against Penn State and Wisconsin. Where do the Knights slot in among those opponents? Probably above Purdue and close to Maryland and Wisconsin. Something in the 31-10 range would do nicely and feels realistic. Pick: OSU -18.5
Wisconsin -10 at Indiana (PTA: -12)
Will Braelon Allen play or won’t he? Luke Fickell wasn’t offering any answers early this week, which doesn’t make anything any easier. Even if Allen can go, he’s rumored to be dealing with some sort of ankle injury, so he might be limited. Maybe the Hoosiers are emboldened by giving Penn State fits last week. Indiana, out of nowhere, averaged 6.58 yards per play against that Nittany Lion defense, 37% better than any opponent had managed against Penn State this season and 12% better than the Hoosiers had done against any FBS opponent. Things get weird late in the season. Pick: Indiana +10
Penn State -8.5 at Maryland (PTA: -13)
Speaking of last week’s defensive clunker, Maryland is way more equipped to put up numbers against this defense than Indiana was a week ago. But, the Terps have sort of slowed to a crawl since starting 5-0 and scaring Ohio State for three quarters in the sixth game. I’m going to play the motivation angle here. After dredging up all of the old “this is just James Franklin’s ceiling” feelings two weeks ago in a loss to Ohio State, Penn State did nothing to wash that away with an uglier-than-expected win over Indiana. The Nittany Lions have Michigan up next, so I’m banking on them to put a little extra towards this one in hopes of making the Wolverines’ visit feel like a big game again. Right now, it feels like a foregone conclusion. Pick: PSU -8.5
Illinois at Minnesota -1.5 (PTA: Minnesota -7)
All the numbers point to value on the Gophers here, but I’m less convinced. After losing to Purdue and Nebraska in back-to-back weeks, Illinois beat Maryland (still 5-1 at the time) and led Wisconsin for most of the game before losing by four, two pretty good outings. The Illini finally got their much needed bye week, and historically Bret Bielema has made the most of that over the past three seasons. Illinois is 6-1 against the spread with a rest advantage over the opponent and 4-1 coming off a bye. The Illini under Bielema are also 7-3 against the spread as a road underdog, 9-4 on the road overall and 9-5-1 coming off a loss. Nebraska’s chances to win the West would get a nice boost if the Illini pull off the outright win, and it seems well within reach. Pick: Illinois +1.5
Iowa -5 at Northwestern (PTA: Iowa -8.5)
The deed is done. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is out at Iowa at the end of the season, and if you watched dad’s press conference this week, Kirk Ferentz didn’t exactly make it seem like he was happy with how it went down. I’m not sure if that means the Hawkeye offense will come out and look as though a weight has been lifted, but it’s possible. Still, it’s not like betting against the Iowa offense has burned me too often of late. I’d like Northwestern with the points more if this game was at Rayn Field, but I’ll bank on the Wildcats making the transition to the odd (for football) confines of Wrigley Field. Pick: Northwestern +5
Purdue at Michigan -32.5 (PTA: Michigan -31.5)
Most of the season I’ve needed a good reason to lay this many points with Michigan. Not because the Wolverines haven’t been good enough to cover these lines—Michigan has more than proven it is—but because one drive of indifference can be the difference between covering and just blowing a team out. After the two weeks Michigan has had since the sign-stealing allegations emerged, however, I think I’ve found the good reason I need. Whatever you think about what Michigan may have done, we know how it’s being spun in the locker room—everybody’s against us. Maybe that costs the Wolverines down the line, but for this week I think I’ll take the national title contender that feels like it’s backed into a corner. Pick: Michigan -32.5