When looking at the overall matchup of running backs between Oregon and Florida State in the Rose Bowl, it would look as if Oregon has the overwhelming edge. The Ducks rank 22nd in the nation in rushing, averaging 237.3 yards per game. The Seminoles rank 104th, averaging 134.8 yards per game. Both sides have extremely talented young running backs who hope to play a big role on Thursday.
The Ducks are led by Royce Freeman, the 2014 Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year. In his first year, Freeman developed into Oregon's top running back with 230 carries for 1,299 yards and 16 touchdowns. Before the season started, Oregon had a surplus of running backs between Freeman, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner. Rather than name a true starting running back, the Ducks said they would go to more of a running back by committee approach and let things work themselves out. It certainly worked out that way as Marshall and Tyner combined for 770 yards and four touchdowns. Marshall began to be more utilized as a slot receiver, leading the team in receiving yards with 814. Marshall also had five receiving touchdowns.
After dealing with injuries and missing the past three games, Tyner is itching to contribute in the Rose Bowl. However, it'll likely be Royce Freeman who will lead the way in the backfield for the Ducks. Freeman won't just beat you with speed, but with sheer power as well, as he has the ability to mow over defenders. On multiple occasions this year, I've tweeted during games, "Royce Freeman is a damn tank." At 229 pounds, Freeman can be difficult to bring down. Freeman didn't have a rushing touchdown in the final two weeks of the season, but he's ran for over 100 yards in three straight games.
Much like the Ducks, Florida State has also seen a freshman emerge in their backfield. Dalvin Cook was the leading rusher in 2014 for the Seminoles with 155 carries for 905 yards and eight touchdowns. His 905 rushing yards were the most of any first-year running back in school history. Cook has been on a recent hot streak with two huge games going into the Rose Bowl. Against Florida, Cook had 24 carries for 144 yards, and followed up with another big game against Georgia Tech in the ACC title game with 31 carries for 177 yards and a touchdown. Cook's 31 carries were the most for a Florida State running back since 2002. Cook had his breakout game back in October against Syracuse when Karlos Williams was out with an ankle injury and Mario Pender was out with a concussion. Against the Orange, Cook ran the ball 23 times for 122 yards and a touchdown. That was the first of four 100-yard games for Cook in 2014. He's a physical runner who could give Oregon some headaches if he gets going.
After missing the ACC title game with a concussion, Karlos Williams will return to the backfield for the Seminoles in the Rose Bowl. Jimbo Fisher plans on using both Williams and Cook, providing a one-two package for Florida State. This year, Williams ran the ball 138 times for 609 yards and 10 touchdowns. Only once this year did Williams run for over 100 yards, but scored some big touchdowns this year, including the game-tying and game-winning touchdown against then-ranked No. 5 Notre Dame back in October. If Florida State can get the ball right up to the goal line, Williams can punch it in for the score like he did against the Irish.
While Oregon may not have a 1-2 punch like the Seminoles do, Royce Freeman has proven he doesn't need a co-star in the backfield with him. With Karlos Williams back in the mix, I don't see Florida State relying as heavily on Dalvin Cook as they did in the ACC title game. What I'll be curious to see is if Cook can keep up his recent hot streak of 100-yard games. In the past, Oregon has struggled when their opponent establishes the run. In their losses to Stanford and Arizona in 2013, the Ducks gave up 274 rushing yards to the Cardinal and 304 rushing yards against the Wildcats. Oregon's rush defense has improved this year, and if they can stop Cook, they'll take out a crucial piece to Florida State's offense.