(Live Chat today at 2; just a half-hour today, so get there early)
Last year, three players in the NSIC surpassed 1,000 yards rushing for the season.
Winona State’s Rayon Simmons rushed for 1,586 yards and 18 touchdowns (pre-Mineral Water Bowl), setting a conference single-season record for rushing yards.
Richard Haley of Minnesota Crookston ran for 1,134 yards, and Augie’s Dajon Newell ran for 1,090.
This season, with two weeks still to play, six NSIC runners have surpassed the 1,000 yard plateau, and Southwest Minnesota State junior running back Tyler Tonderum has already blown past Simmons’ single-season record.
Chris Smith, who torched USF on Saturday in Upper Iowa’s 30-28 win over the Cougars, will likely also pass Simmons’ total this week.
Here are the NSIC’s top running backs this season.
1. Tonderum, SMSU 262-1,708 (6.5 y/c), 17 TD
2. Smith, UIU 260-1,517 (5.8 y/c), 14 TD
3. Charlie Davidson, Wayne St. 232-1,096 (4.7 y/c), 9 TD
4. Nephi Garcia, USF 200-1,068 (5.3 y/c), 10 TD
5. Avery Walker, Bemidji St. 210-1,028 (4.9 y/c), 5 TD
6. Chichi Ojika, Winona St. 161-1,019 (6.3 y/c), 8 TD
7. Austin Sikorski, UMD 134-875 (6.5 y/c), 12 TD
8. Tre Spears, Concordia 181-806 (4.5 y/c), 4 TD
Two quarterbacks, Luke Papilion of USF and Jon Wolf of Minnesota State, are both in the hunt for a 1,000 yard season as well. Wolf has 764 yards and Papilion 738. Papilion is actually seventh in the league in yards per game (105.4), but has missed the last two games and is still questionable to return. (Augie’s Newell has just 412 yards as Augie’s running game has failed to join the party.)
MSU-Mankato, UMD and St. Cloud State have all used committee approaches in their backfield, which has limited the individual stats of backs like Connor Thomas, Logan Lauters and Michael Walker.
As strong a field as it is, Tonderum is the one who has stood out. And he kind of came out of nowhere. A junior who played pretty much exclusively on special teams last year while the Mustangs went with Gannon Moore and Warren Matthews, Tonderum had 1 carry for 0 yards last season. Moore and Matthews combined for over 1,600 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry.
From outside the SMSU program, it seemed likely that the Mustangs would have trouble replacing that production, but instead Tonderum has been a revelation.
The 5-10, 190-pounder was an 8-man standout in high school, rushing for 6,395 yards and 143 touchdowns in his prep career, setting the Iowa all-time 8-man record for career rushing yards, and he’s put up similar numbers in Marshall.
In the season opener he rushed for 83 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries in a loss to St. Cloud State, but then the next week ran for 343 yards against MSU-Moorhead. Obviously that got the attention of SMSU coach Cory Sauter, because Tonderum has been the focal point of the NSIC’s most explosive offense ever since. He ran for 135 yards the next week, then ran for 224 against Bemidji and 271 against USF. He had 119 against Wayne State, was held to just 61 yards on 19 carries against MSU-Mankato, then came back to run for 282 (on 50 — 50! — carries) against Upper Iowa, and 190 yards last week in a big win over Winona.
He’s certainly been helped by the fact that the Mustang offense is not one-dimensional — QB Charlie Kern, also a new starter this year, has completed 64 percent of his passes (tops in the NSIC) for 2,442 yards, 23 touchdowns (tops in the NSIC) and just seven interceptions, while receiver Anthony Dean has 822 yards receiving (second in the league) and 13 touchdown catches (first in the league).
Tonderum’s 1,708 yards are tops in the nation across all classes. His average of 189.8 yards per game puts him on pace to surpass the 2,000 yard mark (2,088).
It won’t be easy — the Mustangs finish with Concordia, whose run defense has been respectable (163 yards per game, 4.3 yards per carry) and Augustana, who has given up only one 100-yard rusher this season (USF’s Garcia) and is holding opposing teams to just 3.2 yards per rush.
The Mustangs are 5-4, and winning one of those last two would give them a winning season, which might give Tonderum a shot at a Harlon Hill nomination. There are some QBs around the nation putting up some insane numbers, and the Mustangs middling record won’t help him. I honestly couldn’t say if Tonderum is more deserving than others for the Harlon Hill (the D2 Heisman), because I’ve only seen the NSIC.
But if the season ended today, Tonderum would be my pick for NSIC player of the year, and that’s saying something, because the league is loaded with spectacular running backs this season.