2,000-Yard Rusher Rashaad Penny Deserves More Attention

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Certain milestones in sports carry legendary distinction to such a degree, one only need cite the statistic and no further context is needed: 3,000 hits. Triple Crown. 2,000 yards.

The luster of the 2,000-yard milestone in college football has seemingly worn off in recent years, however. San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny joined the club on Friday, closing out the 2017 regular season with 2,027 yards.

This feat feels like it should be a much bigger deal, especially given the exclusive company Penny joins. The following is every college football 2,000-yard rusher ever:

  • Tony Dorsett, Pitt – 1976
  • Charles White, USC – 1979
  • Marcus Allen, USC – 1981
  • Mike Rozier, Nebraska – 1983
  • Lorenzo White, Michigan State – 1985
  • Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State – 1988
  • Rashaan Salaam, Colorado – 1994
  • Troy Davis, Iowa State – 1995 & 1996
  • Bryan Hanspard, Texas Tech – 1996
  • Ron Dayne, Wisconsin – 1996 & 1999
  • Ricky Williams, Texas – 1998
  • LaDainian Tomlinson, TCU – 2000
  • Damien Anderson, Northwestern – 2000
  • Larry Johnson, Penn State – 2002
  • J.J. Arrington, Cal – 2004
  • Ray Rice, Rutgers – 2007
  • Kevin Smith, UCF – 2007
  • Matt Forte, Tulane – 2007
  • Donald Brown, Connecticut – 2008
  • Andre Williams, Boston College – 2013
  • Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin – 2014
  • Tevin Coleman, Indiana – 2014
  • Christian McCaffrey, Stanford – 2015
  • Derrick Henry, Alabama – 2015
  • D’Onta Foreman, Texas – 2016
  • Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State – 2016

So that’s 28 times in the history of college football, and just 26 players; Rashaad Penny makes 27. Certainly the increase in 2,000-yard seasons since the expansion to 12 regular-season games in 2006 increases the pool, with Penny marking the 11th instance of a 2,000-yard season.

He is likely to have company, too. The popularity of conference championship games, which only the SEC and Big 12 had in the 1990s, gives players one additional game to rack up yardage on the way to 2,000. Stanford’s Bryce Love and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor should hit the marker as a result of two additional games with the Pac-12 and Big Ten Championships, as well as a bowl game.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that FAU running back Devin Singletary could reach 2,000 yards with two games remaining. He’s currently at 1,632, thus would need two games of about 185 yards each.

Championship games helped Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey get to 2,000 yards in 2015, and the same for Penny’s former San Diego State teammate, Donnel Pumphrey, a season ago.

However, Penny reaching this feat in the regular season elevates him to an even more exclusive club within an already elite group. Again, this seems to me worthy of much greater praise than it’s receiving.

To wit, Penny virtually disappeared from the Heisman Trophy conversation midway through the campaign, after games of 53 and 69 yards. Those were Penny’s only games failing to eclipse 100 yards rushing, and over the ensuing four, he never finished with less than 203.

Other Heisman-contending running backs Taylor and Saquon Barkley rushed for fewer than 100 yards in three and eight (!) games on the season. Love, who Penny edged out for the national rushing title, failed to rush for 100 yards just once — but also missed a game midway through the season.

Hitting 2,000 yards was once almost a guarantee to win the Heisman. Six of the first seven 2,000-yard rushers took home the hardware. The lone exception from Tony Dorsett in 1976 through Rashaan Salaam in 1994 was Lorenzo White, who finished fourth. White was hindered by the longstanding tradition of voters factoring team success into their balloting, as Michigan State was a middle-of-the-road team that season.

The same was true for Troy Davis in both 1995 and 1996, when he rushed for 2,000 yards but lost the Heisman to Eddie George and Danny Wuerffel. Nevertheless, Davis was still a finalist.

Of the 26 previous 2,000-yard rushers, 17 were Heisman finalists, with nine winners. All nine 2,000-yard rushers who did not receive invites to New York City played from 1996 on-ward, with a remarkable streak of five straight 2,000-yard rushers — Arrington, Forte, Smith, Rice and Brown — failing to be named finalists.

Arrington played for a 10-1 Cal team that took national champion USC to the brink. His Heisman snub was a fitting, albeit unfortunate pairing with Cal’s Rose Bowl bid instead going to Texas.

Similarly, in 2016, Donnel Pumphrey’s run to the record books was something of an afterthought, but fellow 2,000-yard rusher D’Onta Foreman of a 5-7 Texas team went to New York. There is indeed a theme.

While Andre Williams’ invitation in 2013 from a 7-5 Boston College team broke the recent trend, 2,000 yards does not carry the weight it once did — if you play for a non-brand name program, any way.

Rashaad Penny embodies the best of college football. He played within the framework of his team behind a bona fide star and record-setting in Pumphrey, then elevated an already high bar further when given the opportunity. He reached what was long the benchmark for ultimate greatness among college running backs, and did so with style.

When asked to discuss the Heisman in October, in the days following the senseless mass shooting in Las Vegas, Penny instead used the air time to extend well wishes and prayers for the families impacted.

Rashaad Penny deserves to be a Heisman Trophy finalist, even if being a 2,000-yard rusher isn’t viewed with the same reverence it once was.