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.