Edwin Baker, the Big Ten's Best Back: The Case Against ESPN

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Edwin Baker, the Big Ten's Best Back: The Case Against ESPN
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In a relatively recent series, ESPN Big Ten writers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett ranked their top rushing offenses and top running backs in the Big Ten. The top five rushing offenses for the 2011 season are as follows: 1) Wisconsin 2) Michigan State 3) Ohio State 4) Nebraska 5) Penn State. Now I don’t hold any beef with these rankings as units, partially because Wisconsin always has had one of the best offensive lines in the nation under head coach Bret Bielema. The way I look at it, in Wisconsin there are three things that matter: Beer, a good offensive line and cheese (In that order.)

After all, while Wisconsin loses John Moffitt and Gabe Carimi, two of the best linemen in the country as well as Bill Nagy, their returning roster features young up-and-coming studs in players like Ricky Wagner, Peter Konz and Josh Oglesby (Assuming he is healthy). This, in addition to a slew of great No. 2’s who will constantly be pushing for the starting job. All this while Michigan State’s biggest question mark of the upcoming season is its offensive line

Listen to me, I sound like a Badger and now I’m getting off topic.

The real reason I wrote this is because for the first time since reading his articles over at ESPN, I disagree with Adam Rittenberg. I assure you this is once in a blue moon and I mean no disrespect for Mr. Rittenberg, but I simply don’t see eye to eye with him on this one subject.

 

 

You see, in Adam’s running back rankings he has Edwin Baker listed as the No. 2 back in the Big Ten. Believe me, as a Michigan State football fan, I am sadly content with No. 2, usually. But not this time! Here are the full rankings from the article:

  1. James White
  2. Edwin Baker
  3. Monte Ball
  4. Dan Herron
  5. Rex Burkhead
  6. Marcus Coker
  7. Ralph Bolden
  8. Silas Redd
  9. Le’Veon Bell
  10. Jason Ford

So there you have it, Edwin Baker is the No. 2 running back for the upcoming 2011 season. Now, here is why in my (very biased Michigan State writer’s) opinion: Adam Rittenberg is wrong.

Let’s start by comparing to two backs statistically:

Statistic Attempts Yards Average Long TD’s
Edwin Baker 207 att 1201 yards 5.8 ypc 80 yards 13 TD’s
James White 156 att 1052 yards 6.7 ypc 66 yards 14 TD’s

 

The two backs have pretty similar statistics. The major difference that stands out is the yards per carry, which Adam Rittenberg does not fail to mention. “He (White) finished fourth among Big Ten running backs in rush yards but averaged nearly a yard per carry more than any of them.”

 

These stats, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. There are much deeper reasons as to why one back may be favored above the other and it’s time for us to get to the bottom of this! Ready Blue? (That was a pathetic attempt at a humorous Blue’s Clues reference. *Sigh*)

In his analysis of Edwin Baker, Adam Rittenberg states “The main challenge for Baker is to record big rushing performances against elite defenses.” I would absolutely agree that if Baker wants to solidify himself as an elite Big Ten running back he will have to “show up” to bigger games; however, I would also note that James White had a similar problem through out the 2010 season that Rittenberg fails to point out. Let’s look at each player’s big/low games of the year, shall we?

 

 

Edwin Baker’s best games included 117 yards against Western Michigan, 183 vs. Florida Atlantic, 147 @ Michigan, 179 vs. Minnesota, 118 @ Penn State, 90 vs. Notre Dame, and 87 vs. Wisconsin. While Baker’s worst games included a 23 yard performance vs. Illinois, 21 yards @ Iowa, and 14 yards vs. Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.

 

 

Looking at those numbers tells us that arguably his best game of the season was against a decent defense at Penn State. On the other hand, two of Baker’s worst performances came in the same games as Michigan State’s only two losses. Obviously, it is clear Baker failed to produce against truly superior opponents.

Let’s take a look at James White now.

 

His best games were 145 yards vs. Austin Peay, 118 vs. Minnesota, 144 vs. Indiana, 181 @ Michigan, 134 vs. Northwestern, and 98 yards @ Michigan State. While his worst games were 10 yards @ Iowa, 25 vs. San Jose State, 40 @ Arizona State, 59 vs. UNLV, and 23 yards in the Rose Bowl vs. TCU.

 

While White was able to completely destroy the average competition in a similar fashion to Baker, his worst games came against opponents who were clearly inferior to Wisconsin (Note: White did not play in the Purdue game). So while Baker failed to show up against superior opponents, I would argue that White failed to show up to inferior opponents (Exception: TCU) as well as some superior opponents.

Now you might say “Well Alex, just look at the yards per carry! That tells it all! Uh durr.”

Well, yes and no. While 6.7 yards per carry is an impressive stat for any back, James White had an incredible offensive line to create holes for him. John Moffit, Gabe Carimi and that Wisconsin O-line made holes that I could have run through for six yards. Edwin Baker had the support of a very mediocre offensive line that was no doubt at its worst towards the end of the season when the Spartans had to face off with opponents like Iowa and Alabama.

In addition, when you look at White’s stats vs. AP ranked teams they drop dramatically. He averages 5.0 ypc vs. AP ranked teams; and here is an interesting tidbit for you: When the Badgers were winning by more than 22 points, White’s YPC was 8.7 yards. This was likely late in the games when that notorious Bielema was running up the score against opposing teams’ second team defenses. If you look further, there is a direct correlation between how much Wisconsin led by, and White’s YPC.

BY WINNING PT DIFF ATT YDS AVG
WINNING BY 22+ 36 312 8.7
WINNING BY 15-21 25 208 8.3
WINNING BY 8-14 40 238 6.0
WINNING BY 1-7 17 98 5.8
WHEN TIED 22 97 4.4

 

 

So not only did White’s production drop against superior opponents, his production dropped depending on how close the game was! Baker, on the other hand, was quite the opposite. When Michigan State was only leading by 1-7 points, Baker averaged an incredible 10.8 yards per carry!

Now let’s just compare the two backs’ physical attributes. ESPN lists Baker at 5’ 9” and 208 lbs and they list White at 5’10” and 198 lbs. At first glance you might go “Well I’d prefer to have White on my team. Ten pounds less could translate to an extra half step on defenders!” Well that is simply incorrect. NFLDraftScout.com lists Baker’s low 40 time at 4.42, his high time at 4.63, and his accepted time at 4.52. White’s low is 4.42, his high is 4.65, and his accepted is coincidentally 4.52 seconds.

Now based off that information, you have two running backs with very comparable speed and one is 10 pounds heavier. What team wouldn’t want the back that has an extra 10 pounds of muscle to run over defenders with, without sacrificing any of the quickness?

Please don’t take this as a knock against Wisconsin’s rushing game as a whole. I think it’s tremendous, and an offensive line of that caliber cannot be excluded from the conversation of “Best Rushing Game.” However, it can be excluded when we are talking about the individual talents of the backs themselves. Any running back’s true abilities can be magnified with the help of a good offensive line.

I know I am nit picking, it’s just one spot on Adam Rittenberg’s list; but hey, it’s a slow offseason for the Spartans and I had to spice it up somehow.

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