Thursday, December 15, 2011

Barry Sanders: A Look Back

Montee Ball will presumably break, or at least tie, Barry Sanders NCAA “regular season” touchdown record during Wisconsin’s upcoming BCS bowl. He only needs one more score to do so. Nowadays, stats accumulated in bowl games count towards season totals and career numbers. This was not the case prior to 2002 and that is why taking a look back at Barry Sanders’ 1988 season as an Oklahoma State Cowboy is so fascinating.

Most football fans know Barry as the electric Detroit Lions running back. People are aware of his crazy NFL numbers and his premature retirement in the face of the NFL rushing record. What the casual follower may not be aware of is the Barry Sanders in 1988 was arguably better than any subsequent version in comparison to his peers.

Sanders’ total career NCAA rushing numbers are nothing to write home about. He only really played one full season. Prior to ’88, Barry backed up another future NFL star, Thurman Thomas. Once Thomas left and Sanders took over, he showed what he could do as a junior and then departed for the NFL after the season and winning the Heisman Trophy.

In that 1988 campaign, Barry Sanders broke over 30 NCAA records. He rushed for the most touchdowns in a season, scored the most points, rushed for the most yards, accumulated the most total yardage, etc. For the sake of present day comparisons, let’s include Barry’s bowl game stats as well here in preparation for Montee Ball’s approach of Sanders. Ball is technically one touchdown shy of Sanders’ 39 total touchdowns mark. But if we include the 1988 Holiday Bowl, where Sanders rushed for a staggering FIVE more touchdowns, the record seems quite out of reach. Montee Ball has had a tremendous season, especially down the stretch; he is simply no Barry Sanders.

In ’88, the numbers (including the Holiday Bowl performance) are as such: 12 total games played, 2850 rushing yards, 237.5 rushing yards per game, 42 rushing touchdowns, 44 total touchdowns and 5000 exasperated looks from his opponents (last figure estimated). Barry’s lowest yardage output for any game was 154 rushing yards. That was his “worst” game of the year. He topped 200 yards on the ground seven times, including the bowl game. Four of those contests, he went over 300 yards. No one had ever done that before or since. There wasn’t a single game where he scored fewer than two touchdowns. Barry Sanders circa 1988 was Wilt Chamberlain dominant, standing at just 5’8”.

Sure players today have impressive seasons. Montee Ball’s game log, specifically since November, is something to behold. Trent Richardson and LaMichael James are special talents from the running back position as well. Before we get too excited though about current players, waxing poetic, reaching for unnecessary hyperbole, just remember what Barry Sanders did in 1988 and how no one has ever come close.

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