The Wisconsin Badgers: College Football’s True “Running Back U”

After reading these 11 reasons, you won't have any doubt

Bucky Badger circa 1960s - UW Digital Collections [CC BY 2.0 (] - Image Cropped

We understand your potential confusion that an article about the Wisconsin Badgers being college football’s “Running Back U” is appearing on, but we believe it’s not entirely out of place.

There is absolutely no professional football fanbase in the country that has as many crossover fans of the same collegiate squad as the Green Bay Packers and the Wisconsin Badgers. Well, those fans and those of the Minnesota Vikings and Minnesota Golden Gophers, I suppose. Which just makes both of those rivalries all the more intriguing.

Packers and Badgers fandom overlaps because they’re both Wisconsin teams that win the right way by sticking true to their roots, their cultures. Fans of both teams consider their fandom a birthright, as fans are raised they’re taught the tradition of both teams that play in equally historic (and intimately-situated) bowled stadiums. The pageantry of both is palpable; brats and beers aplenty.

We figured if you came here for Packers literature you may enjoy this article, too. We won’t write about the Badgers often, but every once in awhile we will.

If you’re a Packers fan, and not a fan of Bucky, just go ahead and skip this piece!

This article’s claims are accurate heading into the 2020 season.

Alright, onto what you came here for…

There are very few very cultures in sport as strong and ever-growing as the running back culture that exists in Madison, Wisconsin. There is, perhaps, no team more synonymous with success at one position in all sports, collegiate or professional, than the Badgers and running back success.

Most teams, in any sport, would kill for such a clear-cut identity that is known nationally.

Sure, the perpetual offensive line success plays a big part in this culture, but it should be noted that elite offensive linemen come to Madison because of this long-line of elite runners. It’s the symbiotic relationship between the two positions that creates this ongoing phenomena.

The state of Wisconsin annually produces big, strong high school linemen, which makes recruiting them a no-brainer. The University of Wisconsin annually attracts the best running backs from around the country — many want to be the next great runner to wear cardinal red and white. All want to run behind those big, pedigreed linemen. Oddly, most of the best backs are from the East Coast.

Many programs claim to be “Running Back U” but there can only be one. And it’s not particularly close either.

I’m not discrediting other programs that make this claim though. USC, Ohio State, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, among others have had great success over the years at the position. But still, not at the same level as Wisconsin.

Most college football fans would say that the Badgers are one of a few elite running back schools. But we are here to make sure that they’re known, rightly, as the elite running back school.

That’s the mission with this piece.

What’s amazing about the Badgers’ dominance at the running back position is that it’s not just a recent happening. Sure, they’ve easily been the best running team in college football since Barry Alvarez took over as head coach in 1990, as the program embodied the ethos of their fearless, straight-shooting leader.

But Wisconsin’s history as the position goes way back, we’re talking Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch (1940s), Alan Ameche (1950s), Rufus Ferguson (1970s) and Billy Marek (1970s). Hirsch and Ameche are both in the College Football Hall of Fame.

The Fighting Badger Statue at Camp Randall, 2018

Wisconsin anchors the Big Ten West division of the Big Ten and they do so by sticking true to their culture of running the ball with unprecedented success. In doing so, they’ve confirmed that they are the one true “Running Back U” in college football.

Many will disagree with this conclusion. They’ll reference other great programs, ones that have won multiple National Championships. But to that we’d say, come up with a better list of stats, awards, and accomplishments for any program — especially over the last three decades.

Just try. Please, go ahead.

To make this argument easy to digest for you the reader, we’ve broken this down into 11 bullet-pointed reasons. It’s pretty straightforward. Ultimately does this argument even matter? Well, no, I guess not. Is this title meaningless? Yeah, I suppose. But still, facts do matter and sports are fun, so why not mix the two?

And trust us, the stats get crazier the further you read. Enjoy!

1. All-Time Rushing Records Held by Badger Running Backs:

The all-time leading rusher in NCAA history is Wisconsin Badgers Ron Dayne, 7,125 yards (6,397 yards excluding Bowl Games). Yes, we know the NCAA doesn’t recognize his bowl game yardage for some asinine reason, but that doesn’t mean we have to participate in that charade.

The all-time leader in rushing touchdowns in NCAA history, among running backs, is Wisconsin Badger Montee Ball, 77 TDs (83 total touchdowns is also the most by any running back all-time).

The all-time leader in yards per rush, minimum 500 attempts, in NCAA history is Wisconsin Badger Melvin Gordon, averaging 7.8 yards per carry.

The all-time leader in 200 yard rushing games in NCAA history (13) is current Wisconsin Badger Jonathan Taylor. In 2019 he passed Marcus Allen, Rickey Williams and Dayne who each had 12 such games. Reminder, Taylor did this in just three seasons.

These aren’t even necessarily the four best running backs in Badgers’ history. Many would say Alan Ameche should be just about at the top of the list.

That said, all four men led college football in rushing yards for an individual season.

Gordon also holds the record for the most rushing yards in just three quarters of a game (408 yards against Nebraska without playing in the fourth quarter, which is also the second most yards in a single game all-time).

The most yards ran for by any freshman in NCAA history is a record set by Jonathan Taylor (1,977 yards). Ron Dayne is third all-time, but if his bowl game stats were counted, he’d be number one with 2,109 yards — Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma) is, officially, listed as second all-time among freshmen.

The all-time leader in rushing yards through two seasons in NCAA history is none other than Jonathan Taylor (4,171 yards). He also holds the record for most yards through three seasons (6,174 yards), passing Herschel Walker, the player some consider the greatest college football running back of all-time.

The record for the most rushing yards by a duo in NCAA history is held by Melvin Gordon and James White (3,053 combined rushing yards in 2013). Both rushed for more than 1,400 yards for the first time ever in college football history. For good measure, the third string running back (Corey Clement) ran for 547 yards, too.

Alan Ameche, when he left the University of Wisconsin in 1954, had rushed for 3,212 career yards. That was the all-time record for rushing yards in NCAA history at the time.

Talk about some insane foreshadowing.

These numbers cannot be debated, folks. And Wisconsin plays in one of the two best conferences in college football history. Thus, the competition is stiff as hell and Wisconsin’s runners have still put up these numbers.

We’ll update this piece once the 2019 season has concluded to see how Jonathan Taylor has climbed up the all-time lists.

Consider this:

Only seven running backs, in all of college football, have ever hit the 6,000 career rushing yard mark all-time. Two of them are Badgers. Taylor the only one to ever hit the plateau in just three seasons. They’re the only two Big Ten rushers to hit 6,000+ career rushing yards.

These elite backs have led the Badgers to seven Rose Bowl appearances in the last 26 years. It’s not just individual success for the runners, but the impact that these runners have had on the team as a whole.

2. Lets Look at the Raw Numbers:

How about some recent history?

If other schools claimed to be “Running Back U” before the BCS Era, sure we can agree on that. But since then? Wisconsin has dramatically taken over the throne.

Including student-athletes that played in at least one season of the BCS Era (1998) to the present day, lets look at how running backs at some of the elite college football programs have fared statistically. Lets make the cutoff a clean 4,000 career yards from scrimmage and 40+ total career touchdowns for running backs. I’ve included running backs’ entire careers if that running back played at least one year in the BCS system just to be fair. This is accurate heading into the 2020 season.

Lets start with the Badgers.

Wisconsin: Seven running backs with at least 4,000 yards from scrimmage, eight running backs with 40+ total touchdowns.

Lets look at some of their competition for the “Running Back U” title since the beginning of the BCS Era:

Oklahoma: Four running backs have hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, five running backs with 40+ total touchdowns.

Oregon: Four running backs have hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, four running backs with 40+ total touchdowns.

Michigan: Three running backs have hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, three running backs with 40+ total touchdowns.

Penn State: Three running backs have hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, one running back with 40+ total touchdowns.

Ohio State: Two running backs have hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, three running backs with 40+ total touchdowns.

Georgia: Two running backs have hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, two running backs with 40+ total touchdowns.

Texas: Two running backs have hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, two running backs with 40+ total touchdowns.

Alabama: One running back has hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, four running backs with 40+ total touchdowns.

LSU: Two running backs have hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, two running backs with 40+ total touchdowns.

Pitt: Two running backs have hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, one running back with 40+ total touchdowns.

USC: One running back has hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, two runnings backs with 40+ total touchdowns.

Auburn: One running back has hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, one running back with 40+ total touchdowns.

Arkansas: One running back has hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, one running back with 40+ total touchdowns.

Nebraska: One running back has hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, one running back with 40+ total touchdowns.

Florida: Zero running backs have hit 4,000 yards from scrimmage, zero running backs with 40+ total touchdowns.

No one comes close to the Badgers. There’s no other way to slice it.

And before the “Durr… The SEC defenses are better than Big Ten defenses” crowd comes in, lets vanquish that argument, shall we?

Since 2006 the Badgers have played the SEC teams eight times. Here’s how Wisconsin’s starting running backs have fared in those contests:

2006 vs Auburn: Brian Calhoun ran for 215 yards and a touchdown.

2007 vs Arkansas: P.J. Hill ran for 36 yards (Yes, this was a bad game… but Wisconsin did win).

2008 vs Tennessee: P.J. Hill ran for 136 yards.

2014 vs South Carolina: Melvin Gordon ran for 143 yards.

2014 vs LSU: Melvin Gordon ran for 140 yards and a touchdown.

2015 vs Auburn: Melvin Gordon ran for 251 yards and three touchdowns.

2015 vs Alabama: Corey Clement ran for 16 yards (on just eight carries; he was playing injured).

2016 vs LSU: Corey Clement ran for 86 yards.

Wisconsin’s starting running backs have averaged 112 yards per game on the ground against the SEC over the last 13 years (excluding Clement’s injury-shortened game against Alabama in 2015). Not to mention Badger backs have put up big games against ACC and Pac 12 opponents in recent years, too.

So, you can put the argument to bed that the Badgers wouldn’t be so dominant running the ball “If they had to go up against SEC defenses every week.” Because numbers and facts say otherwise.

Do we really need any other reasons after these first two? Seems like overkill, but here we go.

3. 1,000 Yard Rushing Seasons:

In the last 15 years they lead the entire NCAA in 1,000 yard rushers. They’ve had a runner go for 1,000 yards 16 times in the last 16 years. They currently have a 15 year streak going, obviously the longest in the country. In fact, there have been 25 total Badgers rush for 1,000 yards in a season since 1993 (in the last 26 years).

For most programs getting a runner to 1,000 yards is a big accomplishment. For the Badgers it’s basically the bare minimum for the starting back.

Consistency. Dominance. It’s their culture.

No other program in the country comes close to this level of 1,000 yard rushers in the last 26 years. Just as no Power 5 program has a 1,000 yard rushing streak close to 15 years.

The 1,000 yard rushing seasons over the last 26 years have come with four different head coaches, too. So it’s not just the coach, it’s the program as a whole — the culture.

4. It’s Not Just The Starting RB:

Five times since 2012 the Badgers have had three running backs rush for at least 100 yards in the same game. In the same game! Five times is no fluke.

Yes, it’s not really strange for the third string back to get over the century mark after both of his superiors already went for 100 in Madison.

Since 2002, they’ve had 21 games when two Badgers running backs went for over 100 yards in the same game. 21 times, again, is no fluke.

And remember, there can only be one starter in the game.

As you can see, it’s not just that the Badgers continually recruit elite runners to lead the team, they have incredible depth, too. To have multiple backs on the roster capable of putting up that many yards in a backup, off the bench, capacity is astonishing.

The Badgers’ backup in 2019 Nakia Watson averaged 4.5 yards per rush and scored two touchdowns, well spending most of the season on the bench behind Taylor. In 2020, it’ll be up to him to carry on the tradition of running back success along with incoming freshman Jalen Berger (more on him at the end of this piece).

5. The Single-Greatest Rushing Performance in NCAA History:

There is one game that truly represents the unparalleled modern greatness of the Badgers’ running attack. It was the greatest single-game rushing performance that college football has ever seen.

The Wisconsin Badgers took on the No. 14 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 2012 Big Ten Conference Championship Game in Indianapolis.

The Badgers were 14 point dogs in the game to the Cornhuskers according to Vegas. The Badgers ended up winning 70-31 (and it wasn’t that close). That’s a 53 point swing in the spread to the finished score. Is that the largest swing ever in football history? It has to be in a game in a Power Five conference right? Especially a championship game.

The Badgers had two running backs go for 200 yards in the same game (Ball and Gordon) and another went for 100 (White). Those three running backs combined for eight rushing touchdowns, too.


Wisconsin’s rushing yard total came to 539 yards for an average of 10.78 yards per rush as a team (against a 10-3 Nebraska squad that had won their previous six games, including four straight ranked, conference opponents). The Badgers, on 50 carries, didn’t fumble the ball once.

Wisconsin completed just eight passes in the game and still scored 70 points. The Badgers’ lone passing touchdown was by a running back, too (White).

It really was the greatest single-game rushing performance in NCAA history and it came on one of the biggest stages — in a Conference Championship Game. The effort earned the Badgers a berth in the Rose Bowl, despite their unassuming record.

“Go Big Red!” was chanted quite sarcastically that night in Indy. We know that to be true, we were there.

Find reasons 6-12 on the next page, including a jaw-dropping stat in reason 7!

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We seek to bring more context to, and share interesting stores about, the history of the Green Bay Packers and the NFL as a whole. Clickbait be damned. "We" are Daniel and David Zillmer; hit the about or contact to learn more.

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