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September 16, 2010

Week 3 preview in the Big Ten

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | MWC | Pac-10 | SEC | Others

Ball State at Purdue, noon
Kent State at Penn State, noon
UMass at Michigan, noon
Northern Illinois at Illinois, noon
Ohio at Ohio State, noon
Arizona State at Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m.
USC at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m.
Indiana at Western Kentucky, 5 p.m.
Northwestern at Rice, 7 p.m.
Notre Dame at Michigan State, 8 p.m.
Iowa at Arizona, 10:30 p.m.

Pardon the dust, but the Big Ten is in love with the run again.

Somewhere, Woody and Bo are smiling.

The Big Ten had only two 1,000-yard rushers last season in Wisconsin's John Clay (1,517) and Penn State's Evan Royster (1,169). There had not been fewer than five 1,000-yard rushers in a season since 2004, with only four surpassing the milestone in that season.

But after two weeks, the Big Ten boasts five of the nation's top 10 rushers. Nine players eclipsed the 100-yard rushing barrier in the opening week, and eight turned the trick last weekend.

Michigan quarterback Denard "Shoelace" Robinson leads the way, ranking first in the nation at 227.5 yards per game.

Robinson is coming off of a mind-numbing performance in a victory at Notre Dame that pushed the Wolverines to 2-0. He set a Big Ten single-game rushing standard for a quarterback with 258 yards. He also threw for 244 yards to become just the ninth quarterback in NCAA history and the second from the Big Ten (Indiana's Antwaan Randle El was the other, in 2000) to rush and pass for 200 yards in a game.

"Listen, we get 500 yards rushing, if all 500 come from one guy, I don't care -- 500 is 500," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. "As I said after the game, you've got to play all 11. That's part of our deal. We have to do what we've got to do to win the game and score points, and we are going to make them defend all 11."

Research done for Rivals.com by the Big Ten office shows that the only time a quarterback has led the Big Ten in rushing was 1944. That year, Ohio State's Les Horvath turned the trick en route to winning the Heisman.

Robinson is followed in the Big Ten rushing race by Michigan State's Edwin Baker (fifth in the nation/150.0 ypg), Minnesota's Duane Bennett (sixth/145.5 ypg), Iowa's Adam Robinson (ninth/132.5 ypg) and Wisconsin's Clay (10th/130 ypg). And two other Big Ten backs are averaging more than 100 yards rushing: Illinois' Mikel Leshoure (113.5 ypg) and Indiana's Darius Willis (102 ypg).

The last time the Big Ten was dominated by good running backs was in 2002, when nine players ran for 1,000 yards. The headliner that season was Penn State's Larry Johnson, who finished with 2,087 yards.

Perhaps the success on the ground this season shouldn't be a shock. Entering the season, every Big Ten team except Michigan returned its top rusher from 2009. But Purdue has lost top back and 935-yard rusher Ralph Bolden to a knee injury.

Still, this looks like the Year of Run in the Big Ten. And Robinson leads the way.

"We got a lot of [good] guys and Denard is one of them," Rodriguez said. "That's why I'm not worried as much about all this attention and everything he's getting because he's a good guy. He was raised right. He's got a great support in his family, and he just loves playing football and he loves playing here at Michigan with his teammates."

Best matchup: Wisconsin RB John Clay vs. Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict. Watching the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Burfict and the 6-1, 255-pound Clay collide will be a football lover's joy. Clay has run for 260 yards (6.5 yards per carry). Can he extend his string of consecutive 100-yard games to nine? Burfict will be a big roadblock on a rugged Sun Devils defense that was 19th nationally against the run last season and could be even tougher this season.

Player on the spot: Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi. He needs to avoid the big mistake when the Hawkeyes play at Arizona. So far, so good this season, but he'll need also to make some big plays for the Hawkeyes to win. He has hit 70 percent of his passes for 433 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He'll face an Arizona defense that should be one of the best in the Pac-10 vs. the pass.

Numbers game: Michigan's Denard Robinson has 885 total yards, which is more than seven Big Ten teams.

What they're saying

"Everybody says, 'Well, you can't run your quarterback 20-some times a game.' Well, did they say that when you handed off to Barry Sanders? You can't run Barry Sanders 20-some times a game? If he can handle it, he can handle it." -- Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, on whether Denard Robinson can hold up under a heavy workload

"It's not about perfect; it's about execution, and he's done that. You look at his passer rating, No. 1 in the nation, and I'd like it to stay there. Why not? We ask our players to play to their strengths. For [coordinator] Mick McCall and our offensive staff, it's players, formations and plays. Danny is a perfect fit for our offense. He's done a great job managing things, spreading it out. We have a number of young men with receptions and it's tough to stop." -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, on quarterback Dan Persa's hot start

"We might not be the most talented team across the board, but we need to be the toughest, most physical, most ready-to-go team. Stepping out of bounds, [as] I was trying to set the example for the team, is not something we're going to be about. If it's close, everybody needs to go for it. I understand where the coaches are coming from and what they have to say, but at the same time, I'm not going to be someone who runs away from anything that's going to help our team." -- Purdue QB Robert Marve, on his dislike of running out of bounds

"I don't really feel a hatred for Notre Dame. I don't know if our players do or not. Some players may say that they don't like them. I think we have respect for the rivalry. I think it's been intense." -- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, on this week's foe. Since the rivalry resumed in 1997, the Spartans have gone 9-4

Etc.: USC's trip to Minnesota will be a homecoming of sorts for Trojans coach Lane Kiffin. He graduated from Bloomington (Minn.) Jefferson High in 1993. He also interviewed for the Gophers' job that went to Tim Brewster. Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker will miss Saturday's game at Arizona after being hospitalized with complications from diabetes. He also didn't coach last Saturday vs. Iowa State. Michigan State has been a 4-3 defensive team under Mark Dantonio, but it unveiled a 3-4 look in the first three plays of the second half of last week's win over Florida Atlantic. Arizona State will be Wisconsin's first non-conference Big Six foe since the Badgers opened vs. Washington State in 2007. Arizona coach Mike Stoops was an All-Big Ten defensive back at Iowa in 1983 and '84. He began his coaching career at as a graduate assistant (1986-87) and volunteer assistant (1988-91) at Iowa. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly followed Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio as coach at Cincinnati. In 2006, when he was coach of Central Michigan, Kelly interviewed for the MSU coaching job that went to Dantonio, who was at Cincy. When Dantonio took the Spartans' job, Kelly assumed command at Cincinnati. Northwestern is 8-3 away from home since the start of the 2008 season. Only two Big Ten defenses rank among the top 25 in the nation: Iowa (ninth) and Wisconsin (23rd). Just three offenses rank among the Top 25 in the country: Michigan (14th), Ohio State (23rd) and Iowa (25th). Ohio State has allowed four touchdowns, but the defense has yielded only one. The other three have come on special teams. The kicking competition remains open at Michigan. Redshirt freshman Brendan Gibbons missed two field goals at Notre Dame. Walk-on Seth Broekhuizen is pushing for the job. Indiana WR Tandon Doss will play Saturday after missing the opener after suffering a preseason groin injury. He led the Hoosiers with 77 catches for 962 yards last season. Purdue WR Keith Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury last week against Western Illinois. He led the Big Ten with 91 catches last season. Star Wisconsin return man David Gilreath was carried off the field on a stretcher following a big hit in last week's win over San Jose State. He suffered a concussion and likely will be out this week. When Northern Illinois plays at Illinois, the Huskies could be without coach Jerry Kill. He has been hospitalized with dehydration and has undergone tests for an undisclosed illness. In 2005, Kill was diagnosed with kidney cancer while coaching Southern Illinois. Kill has said his recent illness isn't cancer-related. There is no timetable for his return. If Kill can't coach, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will serve as acting head coach. Minnesota S Kyle Theret will return to action after being suspended since March for an unspecified violation of team rules. Wisconsin WR Nick Toon missed last week's game with turf toe and may not be back for Saturday's visit from Arizona State.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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