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Big Ten goes back to the future

The operative theme in the Big Ten in 2011 is change. But there is one throwback element to the league that should appeal to fans still nostalgically attached to the 1970s glory days.

Running quarterbacks.

Back in the Bo and Woody days, the Big Ten had an array of mobile quarterbacks -- Michigan's Rick Leach and Ohio State's Cornelius Greene were both 2,000-yard career rushers on great teams. Charlie Baggett ran for more than 1,700 yards in three seasons at Michigan State. Minnesota had an athletic quarterback who went on to play defensive back in the NFL -- a guy named Tony Dungy.

But even that mid-'70s bunch is nothing compared to what the conference will put on the field this fall. The Big Ten has become the dual-threat capital of college football.

Thanks to the arrival of Nebraska, the league has the nation's top three returning quarterbacks in rushing: Denard Robinson of Michigan (131 yards per game), Taylor Martinez of the Cornhuskers (74 yards per game) and Nathan Scheelhaase of Illinois (67). They combined for more than 3,500 rushing yards and 31 rushing touchdowns last year.

But it hardly stops there.

Northwestern returns Dan Persa, its second-leading rusher in 2010 and top scorer on the ground with nine touchdowns. Russell Wilson, a career 1,000-yard rusher in three seasons at North Carolina State, steps in as the new quarterback at Wisconsin. Minnesota is turning over the position to MarQueis Gray, who was primarily a wide receiver last year.

Purdue probably will start Robert Marve but also use dual-threat QB Rob Henry, who ran for more than 500 yards last year when thrust into the lineup by Marve's knee injury. Iowa's James Vandenberg is no scrambler, but he replaces an equally immobile Ricky Stanzi. Whoever gets the job at Indiana will be more elusive than Ben Chappell (though less accomplished as a passer, too). If Edward Wright-Baker or freshman Tre Roberson is the starter, either will be a legit dual threat.

The only Big Ten teams that appear to be getting less dangerous on the ground at quarterback are Ohio State (which lost 2,000-yard rusher Terrelle Pryor) and Penn State (which saw its best running quarterback, Kevin Newsome, transfer). But both will still run the ball from that position, especially if freshman Braxton Miller wins the job for the Buckeyes and Rob Bolden wins it for the Nittany Lions.

I think it's a special league for quarterbacks. You've got a lot of talented players.

-- Northwestern QB Dan Persa

The exception to the leaguewide trend is Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, who has lost more yards than he's gained through three seasons as a Spartan. But he throws it plenty well enough to make up for his lack of wheels.

Ten years ago, Antwaan Randle El of Indiana was just about the only Big Ten quarterback running with regularity. Now it's the '70s all over again, and the runners are everywhere.

"I think it's a special league for quarterbacks," Persa said. "You've got a lot of talented players."

Bo Pelini knows a challenge when he sees one. Last year in the Big 12, the Nebraska coach had the only quarterback who finished among the top 15 rushers in the league. This year, defending that kind of quarterback will be a part of the game plan almost weekly.

"You've obviously got to account for the quarterback in the running game and how he's going to affect you," Pelini said. "It's hard. It creates more stress on your defense. You've got to worry about your rush lanes.

"I feel like we do well against mobile quarterbacks. But let's face the fact, it's not easy to do."

If anything can make Big Ten defensive coordinators feel better about slowing down all the run-pass quarterbacks, it's that some of the best might not be running as much as they did last year.

At Michigan, a change of offense from spread to something more West Coast-ish figures to keep Robinson in the pocket more often. At least that's the plan, and Robinson says he's OK with that. But he was a Rich Rodriguez recruit for a reason, and that reason is his ability to make defenders miss on the run. So don't expect Tom Brady back there.

"We're smart enough to have elements he does well from what he did in the past in the spread in our offense," new Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.

And there is always the option to freelance.

"A broken play," Robinson said, "is always part of the game."

At Northwestern and Nebraska, the motivation for fewer quarterback keepers is to keep the starter on the field all season.

Martinez was banged up for much of 2010, missing two games in the second half of the season. After racking up five 100-yard rushing games in the first seven, he ran for a total of 95 yards in the final seven.

Persa blew out his Achilles in the 10th game of the season and missed the final three. Even before that major injury, he was a beaten man from all the running he did.

"The hits really wore on me toward the end of the year," Persa said. "It was tough; I'm not going to lie. I was beat up. It kind of got old waking up Sunday and thinking, 'I can't walk.' I felt like I got hit by a train sometimes.

"But a lot of it was my fault. A lot of hits I could have avoided. After the second or third game, the coaches were on me to slide more and get rid of the ball."

Given the altered approaches in Ann Arbor, Lincoln and Evanston, the guy who might emerge as the most dangerous runner in the league is Gray. His new coach, Jerry Kill, let QB Chandler Harnish run it 344 times the past three years at Northern Illinois, and he loves what he sees out of Gray.

"Without a doubt the most gifted athlete on our squad is MarQueis," Kill said. "If MarQueis would have had a lot of quarterback reps, I think it would be scary where he's at right now because he's so athletically gifted.

"I remember recruiting MarQueis out of high school. We weren't in it very long because we were at Northern Illinois, and we weren't going to get him. But he throws the ball very well, much better than what people understand. I think our big key is how we are going to utilize his talents at quarterback."

If the coaches at Minnesota are smart, they'll utilize his legs. Just like almost everyone else in the Big Ten in a back-to-the-future season at quarterback.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.