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Top 16 Running Backs in Big Ten History

The best ever!
Publish Date:11/11/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

The Big Ten started using the name Big Ten in the early ’50s, ranking the top ten running backs from 1952-present.

16) Bob Ferguson, Ohio State Buckeyes

The 1961 Maxwell Award winner also finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Ferguson lost the 1961 Heisman Trophy by just 53 votes to Syracuse’s Ernie Davis. The Ohio State Buckeye was a unanimous All-American selection in 1960 and 1961. Ferguson accomplished all of this from the fullback position.

Video: 1961 Ohio State football highlights

1961 Ohio State football highlights

15) Lorenzo White, Michigan State Spartans

White was outstanding in 1985 and 1987 for the Spartans, and he helped the Spartans win the Big Ten championship with an incredible season. In 1985 and 1987, White finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, was an All-American and won the Big Ten Player of the Year Award. White led the Spartans to a Rose Bowl win over USC in 1988.

Video: Classic Tailback - Lorenzo White Michigan State Highlights

Classic Tailback – Lorenzo White Michigan State Highlights

14) Shonn Green, Iowa Hawkeyes

Green ran for 100-plus yards in every game of the 2008 season — the only player to do so that season — en route to 1,850 total yards and 20 touchdowns. He became Iowa’s first Doak Walker Award winner, was a unanimous All-American and led the Hawkeyes to an Outback Bowl win with his 3-touchdown performance in 2009.

Video: Shonn Greene: College's Best Running Back 2008

Shonn Greene: College’s Best Running Back 2008

13) Howard Cassady, Ohio State Buckeyes

In his career at Ohio State, Cassady ran for over 2,400 yards and was named the AP male athlete of the year in 1955; that honor meant that Cassady was considered the best male athlete in the entire country. In both 1954 and 1955, Cassady earned unanimous All-American honors. Cassady won the second Heisman Trophy for the Big Ten since the conference changed its name in 1953. Alan Ameche won the first in 1954, just one year prior.

Video: Big Ten Film Vault: 1955 Yearbook - Howard

Big Ten Film Vault: 1955 Yearbook – Howard “Hopalong” Cassidy Heisman Trophy Winner

12) Leroy Keyes, Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll every year Keyes played there (1966-68), and the Boilermakers also won the 1967 Rose Bowl during that time. Those accomplishments are not typical in the history of Purdue football. Keyes almost won back to back Heisman trophies finishing second and third in consecutive years.

Video: Purdue Football | Leroy Keyes Tribute

Purdue Football | Leroy Keyes Tribute

11) Montee Ball, Wisconsin Badgers

Ball, a consensus All-American in 2011 and 2012, finished fourth in the 2011 Heisman Trophy voting. Ball won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2011 and the Doak Walker Award in 2012. Ball helped lead the Badgers to three Rose Bowls.

Video: Ultimate Montee Ball Highlights - 2011 Season

Ultimate Montee Ball Highlights – 2011 Season

10) Eddie George, Ohio State Buckeyes

George won the 1995 Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award, Doak Walker Award and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Award. That year, George was also a unanimous All-American selection. When George was the feature back for Ohio State (1994-95), he averaged 302 rushing attempts, 1,534.5 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns per season. The only drawback for George is the lack of bowl wins as the Buckeyes were 0-3 in Bowl games with George in the backfield.

Video: Classic Tailback - Eddie George Ohio State Highlights

Classic Tailback – Eddie George Ohio State Highlights

9) Anthony Thompson, Indiana Hoosiers

Anthony Thompson finished second in the 1989 Heisman Trophy voting but won the most significant awards. Thompson won the 1989 Walter Camp, Maxwell, and Big Ten Player of the Year awards. The Indiana Hoosier was also a unanimous All-American selection in 1989. Thompson owned many records at the time of his graduation.

Video: Most Iconic Person: Anthony Thompson | B1G Football

Most Iconic Person: Anthony Thompson | B1G Football

8) Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin Badgers

In 2014 Gordon led the nation with 2,587 rushing yards — the second-best total in NCAA history behind Barry Sanders — and 29 touchdowns and won the Doak Walker Award. Gordon racked up 4,915 yards and 45 touchdowns in his career

Video: The GREATEST Rushing Performance in College Football HISTORY! 💯

The GREATEST Rushing Performance in College Football HISTORY! 💯

7) Mike Hart, Michigan Wolverines

Hart is just one of a very few to rush for over 5,000 yards in his big ten career. Hart set a Michigan freshman record with 1,455 yards in 2004, and as a junior, he totaled 1,562 yards. Hart holds several Michigan records, including carries (1,015) and yards (5,040) in a career and most games with over 100 rushing yards (28).

Video: Mike Hart tribute

Mike Hart tribute

6) Larry Johnson, Penn State Nittany Lions

Johnson only played for one season, but what a season it was! Johnson rushed for 2,087 yards (second all-time only to Dayne) and 20 touchdowns on 7.7 yards per carry in 2002, earning consensus All-American honors and the Doak Walker, Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy race, bringing elite size and speed to the backfield.

Video: Larry Johnson Penn State Career Highlights - 2K for LJ

Larry Johnson Penn State Career Highlights – 2K for LJ

5) Alan Ameche, Wisconsin Badgers

Alan “The Horse” Ameche won the first Heisman Trophy (1954) since the conference changed its name to the Big Ten (1953). Ameche held the NCAA career rushing yards record after completing his college career at Wisconsin in 1954. While Ameche played for Wisconsin (1951-54), the Badgers never finished lower than 15th in the final AP poll. Ameche and the Badgers lost the 1953 Rose Bowl to Southern California, 7-0, even though Ameche ran for a then-Rose Bowl record of 133 yards. Ameche was a stud at Wisconsin and is probably best known for his game-winning touchdown in the greatest game ever played, the 1958 NFL Championship game.

Video: Wisconsin's Alan Ameche awarded with Heisman Trophy as outstanding college footba...HD Stock Footage

Wisconsin’s Alan Ameche awarded with Heisman Trophy as outstanding college footba…HD Stock Footage

4) Saquon Barkley, Penn State Nittany Lions

Barkley finished his time at Penn State with 3,843 yards and 43 touchdowns on the ground. He also added eight receiving touchdowns, which is elite for backs, putting him over the 50-score mark. He was a big part of Penn State’s Big Ten title run in 2016.

Video: The Human Cheat Code || Penn State RB Saquon Barkley Career Highlights ᴴᴰ

The Human Cheat Code || Penn State RB Saquon Barkley Career Highlights ᴴᴰ

3) Ron Dayne, Wisconsin Badgers

Dayne was the epitome of a workhorse running back, finishing with over 1200 carries for over 7,000 rushing yards. In 1999, Dayne also took home the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Award, the AP Player of the Year Award, the Doak Walker Award and the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Award. Wisconsin won the 1999 and 2000 Rose Bowls, which were Dayne’s junior and senior seasons.

Video: Classic Performances: Ron Dayne runs over UCLA in the Rose Bowl (1999)

Classic Performances: Ron Dayne runs over UCLA in the Rose Bowl (1999)

2) Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin Badgers

When you carry the ball more than 900 times and average more than 2,000 yards per season, you get to be No. 1 on this list. Despite running it a TON, Taylor averaged 6.7 yards per carry and scored 55 touchdowns while at Wisconsin. The big, speedy back finished his college career as the No. 6 all-time rusher in the NCAA and was the first player in history to rush for more than 6,000 yards in three years. He finished in the top 10 of the Heisman voting three times and was a unanimous first-team All-American and recipient of the Doak Walker Award.

Video: Jonathan Taylor Career Top Ten Plays | Wisconsin Football

Jonathan Taylor Career Top Ten Plays | Wisconsin Football

1) Archie Griffin, Ohio State Buckeyes

Who else could it be? Griffin is still the only man to win back-to-back Heisman trophies. Griffin, a unanimous All-American in 1974 and 1975, also won the Walter Camp Award in both seasons. In 1975, Griffin also won the Maxwell Award.

Video: Classic Tailback - Archie Griffin Ohio State Highlights

Classic Tailback – Archie Griffin Ohio State Highlights

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