Penn State’s Singleton gives Big Ten another standout freshman running back

Penn State’s leading rusher going into its game against Ohio State on Saturday is freshman Nick Singleton, who was rated the No. 1 running back recruit in the country last year.

OSU’s TreVeyon Henderson was rated the No. 1 running back nationally in the 2021 recruiting class and lived up to that acclaim by running for 1,255 yards as a freshman last season.

So, is having good young runners a recent phenomenon in the Big Ten or have there always been players who have been ready to carry the ball into and around the heart of a defense from the first day they set foot on campus?

That’s a bit of a trick question. There probably have always been good freshman running backs on a lot of Big Ten rosters. But it wasn’t until 1972 that they were allowed to play varsity football.

So, there is no Red Grange on the list of the Big Ten’s greatest freshmen running backs. Heisman Trophy winners like Iowa’s Nile Kinnick, Michigan’s Tom Harmon, Ohio State’s Vic Janowicz and Howard Cassady are also missing. Dominant runners like Ohio State’s Bob Ferguson from the early 1960s were relegated to the freshman team their first year of college football.

So, who were the best freshmen running backs in Big Ten history?

Here’s my list of the top 10, based solely on what they did as freshmen. The list does not include redshirt freshmen:

1. Ron Dayne (Wisconsin, 1996). Dayne rushed for 2,109 yards and 21 touchdowns in his freshman season.

2. Maurice Clarett (Ohio State, 2002). Clarett might have been a distraction and a pain in the posterior but OSU wouldn’t have won the national championship without him running for 1,237 yards and going over 100 yards rushing in seven games in his only season.

3. Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin, 2017). Taylor’s 1,977 yards rushing was the lowest season total he had in three years at Wisconsin.

4. Mike Hart (Michigan, 2004). Hart’s introductory season included 1,455 yards rushing, six games of more than 100 yards and three games of more than 200 yards.

5. J.K. Dobbins (Ohio State, 2017). Dobbins set an Ohio State freshman record with 1,403 yards rushing, went over 100 yards on the ground in six games and averaged 7.2 yards a carry.

6. Saquon Barkley (Penn State, 2015). Barkley rushed for 1,076 yards, including 194 against Ohio State, and had five games of 100 yards or more.

7. P.J. Hill (Wisconsin, 2006). Hill rushed for 1,569 yards and 15 touchdowns on a Wisconsin team that was 12-1 after not being ranked in the preseason.

8. Laurence Maroney (Minnesota, 2003). Maroney rushed for 1,121 yards and gained more than 130 yards in five games on a 10-3 Gophers team.

9. Robert Smith (Ohio State, 1990). Smith rushed for 1,126 yards and 8 touchdowns and was the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year.

10. TreVeyon Henderson (Ohio State, 2021). Henderson ran for 1,248 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He also caught 27 passes, four of them for touchdowns.

Before you say, “Hey, what about Archie Griffin?,” remember this top 10 was based only on freshman seasons. He rushed for 867 yards and three touchdowns his first year at Ohio State and 431 of those yards came in two games. In his other eight games he averaged 54 yards per game.

Maybe it’s appropriate to be talking about running backs with No. 2 Ohio State (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) playing No. 13 Penn State (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.

Ohio State has won five in a row against the Nittany Lions and nine of the last 10 games the two teams have competed in.

Singleton could give Penn State a weapon it hasn’t had since 2018 – a 1,000-yard rusher at the end of the season. Being able to run the ball effectively and keep Ohio State’s offense off the field is something Penn State obviously would like to do.

Running the ball better is also a point of emphasis this week for Ohio State after gaining only 66 yards on 30 rushing attempts in a 54-10 win over Iowa last Saturday.

Penn State’s cornerbacks and safeties, led by Joey Porter Jr., are the strength of its defense. They might be one of the best defensive backfields in the country.

If Iowa could disrupt Ohio State’s passing game for most of the first half last week, they might be able to do something similar. But if Ohio State can get its running game going early, Penn State won’t be able to focus so much on the passing game.

Penn State started the season with five straight wins over opponents it was expected to beat, then gave up an astounding 418 yards rushing in a 41-17 loss at Michigan. Back home in State College last Saturday, it dominated Minnesota 45-17.

Two of Ohio State’s five straight wins over Penn State have been by one point (2017, 2018). Penn State coach James Franklin desperately wants a win over OSU to create the impression the Nittany Lions are on the road to becoming an elite program.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, an Ohio guy (Cincinnati St. Xavier) has never gotten a win over Ohio State in his previous three starts against the Buckeyes. He desperately wants a win.

So do Penn State’s fans, who make Penn State’s Beaver Stadium the Big Ten stadium where momentum can change the fastest.

But all that won’t be enough to derail Ohio State.

The prediction: Ohio State 35, Penn State 21.

Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414.

Jim Naveau has covered local and high school sports for The Lima News since 1978 and Ohio State football since 1992. His OSU coverage appears in more than 30 newspapers. Naveau, a Miami University graduate, also worked at the Greenville Advocate and the Piqua Daily Call. He has seen every boys state basketball tournament since 1977. Reach him at [email protected] or 567-242-0414.