The big guns: Katzenmoyer, Dayne

Aaron Kirscht

CHICAGO — Thanks to the Big Ten’s convoluted scheduling process, Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne and Ohio State linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer — two of the nation’s premier players at their respective positions — have met on the field only once, in the fifth game of the 1996 season.
Katzenmoyer and the Buckeyes won that game, and the linebacker later shared conference Freshman of the Year honors with Dayne, who was making his first start with the Badgers.
Since that initial meeting, Dayne and Katzenmoyer, both juniors, have followed similar but parallel paths to the top of the college football heap.
For the second straight year, Dayne was named preseason Offensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten. Katzenmoyer is a returning consensus All-American and Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker and was also named the preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Both are early candidates for the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top player, and both are pivotal to their teams’ success.
But Wisconsin and Ohio State, will not play each other this year, meaning fans will again be deprived of what would be one of the more intriguing individual matchups in college football.
After his late start less than two seasons ago, Dayne has developed into the top running threat in the Big Ten, if not the country. In 20 career starts, Dayne has rushed for more than 3,200 years, an average of more than 160 yards per game. He holds 24 Wisconsin and five NCAA records and is a below-average game away from becoming the Badgers’ all-time leading rusher.
“He really is one of the better running backs,” Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. “He’s capable of doing a lot of things on the field, and after him, there’s quite a drop-off on our depth chart.”
Dayne’s surge into the spotlight came at a time when Wisconsin’s running game was slumping. The Badgers’ one-time featured back, Brent Moss, fell out of Alvarez’s good graces, and St. Paul native Carl McCullough — Wisconsin’s leading rusher from the year before — was ineffective.
Then Dayne came off the bench to run for 129 yards in a loss to Penn State. From then on, Alvarez gave Dayne the ball almost exclusively, with stunning results. Dayne posted five games with more than 200 yards (including a 297-yard outburst at Minnesota) and finished with 2,109 yards, the most ever by a freshman and enough to eclipse the Big Ten single-season record.
“He was our offense,” Alvarez said. “When you have that kind of player who wants the ball and can help you move down the field, it makes sense to give it to him.
“It can be dangerous not to have anything else to go to, but I think his philosophy is the same as ours — establish the running game first.”
Dayne’s sophomore season was not as dominant, because of injuries and a weakened offensive line, but his 1,457 yards leave him within reach of Archie Griffin’s 23-year-old Big Ten career rushing record.
Griffin set that record at Ohio State, where Katzenmoyer — who wears Griffin’s No. 45 — now helps prevent the Buckeyes’ defense from allowing such gaudy offensive statistics.
And just as opposing defenses develop game plans around Dayne, Ohio State’s opponents try to limit Katzenmoyer’s effectiveness. Katzenmoyer couples size (6-foot-4, 255 pounds) and speed in a way few players at his position can, so much that he often dominates games.
“We’re going to have a football team whether he plays or not,” Buckeyes coach John Cooper said. “The program is a lot bigger than that. But we’re going to have a really good football team in that area of the field, and Andy is a reason for that.”
Katzenmoyer has totaled 182 tackles in his two-year career, including 36 for a loss of 133 yards. He ranks in the top 10 of nine defensive categories in the Ohio State record book, including career quarterback sacks (14) and interception returns for touchdowns (2).
Dayne and Katzenmoyer’s common dominance ends with individual statistics, however. The Buckeyes will enter the season as the top-ranked team in the nation, while Wisconsin is expected to finish in the middle of the Big Ten pack. And because their talents are likely to carry Dayne and Katzenmoyer to the National Football League after this season, a showdown between two of the conference’s marquee players will have to wait until the two start playing on Sundays.
Unless, of course, a little guy named Heisman says otherwise.