When I read a certain sports network's writeup on the Northwestern running game, I was disappointed that it emphasized a meaningless stat: Northwestern hasn't produced a 1,000 yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton's 2006 season. This has popped up over at Lake the Posts as well (though I see a familiar name pushing back in the comments over there). I have been trying to think of a less meaningful way of discussing the status of the Northwestern running game, and I just can't do it. I explain why after the jump.
This is the most obvious reason. The single biggest reason why Northwestern hasn't produced a 1,000 yard rusher in recent years has been repeated early-season injuries to starting running backs. In 2007 and 2008, Sutton lost large parts of his seasons to injury. Last year, two backs lost significant time to injuries: Mike Trumpy was injured against Illinois, while Adonis Smith struggled with injuries that limited his consistency. Between them, Trumpy and Smith picked up 101 carries for 448 yards. For comparison, the running back with the most yards and carries on the season was Jacob Schmidt, who carried 107 times for 471 yards. Next in line in both categories was Treyvon Green, with 97 carries for 362 yards. That is to say, the running backs that lost time to injury accounted for about as many carries as the two leading running backs and were more productive per carry than either. Had there been no injuries among the running backs, we might have seen Trumpy continue to produce at over 5 YPC for 100 or more extra carries; then again, maybe he would have faded down the stretch. In any case, the essentially random distribution of injuries bears significant responsibility for Northwestern's lack of impressive individual rushing performances in recent years.
Let's take a look at some other teams that didn't produce a 1,000 yard rusher last season. Let's see: Navy's leading rusher was quarterback Kriss Proctor, who picked up 914 yards. His team rushed for 312.3 yards per game on 5.4 yards per carry. Quarterback Tevin Washington led Georgia Tech with 987 yards; his team managed 316.5 yards per game at 5.7 yards per carry. Running back Lampford Mark led Nevada with 911 yards; his team managed 247.5 yards per game at 5.1 yards per carry. Michael Ford led LSU with 756 yards; his team managed 202.6 yards per game at 4.8 yards per carry.
These teams have some things in common. First, they were all much more successful than Northwestern (166.6 YPG at 3.8 YPC) running the ball. There are some further similarities as well. Georgia Tech and Navy are both flexbone option teams that naturally split carries between many ballcarriers. Nevada is a pistol-based option team that splits carries by both design and substitution. LSU is essentially pro-style and uses frequent subsitutions to get the most out of talented personnel.
Northwestern comes closest to Nevada of these teams: carries are split between the quarterbacks and running backs by offensive design, and no one running back is expected to play every down. You can have a great spread run game that emphasizes a feature back (ask Oregon), but if you don't have LaMichael James hanging around the field you don't need him. Even a team like LSU that gives the vast majority of carries to running backs can do just fine without producing a 1,000 yard rusher. The bottom line is that 1,000 yard seasons have more to do with handing the ball to one guy many times than with team success running the ball.
So, individual rushing totals are a bad way of measuring team rushing success. This doesn't mean that last year was a great year for Northwestern running the ball; only 3.8 YPC for the team is not good (though the running backs totaled about 4.3 YPC; Persa's 0.4 YPC seriously holds down the team number). We should, however, be careful to focus on the right things. Several years without a 1,000 yard rusher don't worry me. To those who say,"certainly, the Wildcats cannot rely on Colter to be the top rusher like he was last year," I say, "why not?" Michigan certainly had some success with Denard Robinson as their leading rusher last season; while Colter isn't quite the athlete that Robinson is, he is certainly capable of picking up chunks on the ground.
Whats more, the Northwestern running backs are a diverse lot without an obvious best choice: Mike Trumpy has been productive whenever he has had a chance to run the ball, though he hasn't shown outstanding speed or great strength. Treyvon Green offered steady production last season, though his 3.7 YPC needs to improve now that he has some experience at the college level. Venric Mark makes me almost giddy from his potential as a big play threat, but a small sample size becomes even dicier when you realize that 4 of 15 carries and 47 of 104 yards last season came against Indiana. Tyris Jones might well have a place in the offense, perhaps as a short-yardage back and a blocking/dive back in 2-back formations. Malin Jones is yet another potential contributor with serious potential, though over the long run it might be better for the program if he ends up redshirting. None of these backs is a stylistic clone of the others, and none has demonstrated significantly superior production over the long haul.
With these options, it would be a shame to commit to a single running back out of a misguided desire for a "feature back" or a "bell cow back." If one of them proves vastly superior as both a runner and pass protector and takes most of the snaps at the position, great. If they end up in a platoon, I have to agree with Mike Trumpy at the end of that ESPN piece and Mick McCall talking to the BTN: the important thing is that the team be productive as a whole, not that one guy racks up stats. If the team runs the ball well, nobody will care if we have a 1,000 yard rusher, two 700 yard rushers, or 10 200 yard rushers.