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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Flashback: The 20-Year Drought Ends

The Brigham Young Cougars football team has had some pretty impressive streaks: 25 wins, 10 conference championships, and 361 games without being shutout. One streak that is not impressive is the number of years BYU went without a 1,000 yard rusher. Twenty years ago, BYU’s drought of 1,000 yard rushers came to an end.

The 1992 season marked the 20th anniversary of “Fleet” Pete Van Valkenburg leading the nation in rushing with 1,386 yards. It was also the last time a Cougar rusher reached 1,000 yards in a season. Jeff Blanc came the closest in 1975 with 984 yards, and Lakei Heimuli rushed for 913 and 966 yards in 1985 and 1986, respectively. No other Cougar ball carrier threatened to reach the 1,000 yard milestone during this twenty year stretch.

BYU coaches and fans, however, were not concerned. The Cougar quarterbacks were rewriting the NCAA record books and revolutionizing the game of football by throwing the ball. BYU was winning games and national awards. Therefore, it must have been fate, that Jamal Willis reached 1,000 yards 20 years ago, especially with the way the 1992 season started.

Willis had finished his freshman season strong in 1991, and was the most experienced player returning. In the first three games, however, junior college transfer Kalin Hall led the team in rushing. He was averaging 110 yards per game. The best Willis could muster was 72 yards against San Diego State.

This imbalance started to shift in game four. For the first time, Willis led the team in rushing. He did it again with a season-high, to that point, 80 yards in game five against Utah State.

Willis had his first 100-yard rushing game of the season against Fresno State in game six. He finished with 129 yards.

Following his 72-yard rushing game against Penn State in game nine, people still weren't talking about 1,000 yards for Willis. He had just 561 yards, which averaged out to just 62.3 yards per game. With only three games left, he would need to average 146.3 yards per game. Willis was a Las Vegas native, but not even the odds makers liked the hometown kid’s chances to increase his per game average by nearly 235 percent.

Game 10 was against the New Mexico Lobos. Willis exceeded his 62 yards per game average with 71 yards--on a single run. It was one of three first half touchdowns by Willis. He finished the game with a season-high 149 yards on just 16 carries. His three touchdowns totaled 114 yards.

10 Game Total: 710 yards.
Average needed to reach 1,000: 145 yards.

The Air Force Falcons came next in Colorado Springs. Again, Willis broke away for a long touchdown run in the second quarter. This time it was for 80 yards. By the end of the game, Willis had 18 carries for 146 yards. He was keeping pace for 1,000 with one game to go.

11 Game Total: 856 yards.
Average needed to reach 1,000: 144 yards.

In the final game of the season, BYU played at the University of Utah. The Utes were determined to not give anything easy to Willis. Even though BYU built an insurmountable 31-0 lead through three quarters, the Utes could still gain a moral victory by stopping Willis from reaching 1,000 yards.

All day, Willis was not able to break loose for a long run like he had against New Mexico and Air Force. His longest rush was 16 yards, but he would not be denied. BYU kept feeding Willis the ball in the fourth quarter to run out the game clock and help him get to 1,000 yards. With time running out, Willis reached exactly 1,000 yards. His next carry was a two-yard loss. He was back down to 998. BYU gave him the ball one more time. This time, Willis surged ahead for 6-yards and a place in history.

The 20-year drought was over. Jamal Willis would finish 1992 with 1,004 yards rushing.

The Editor appreciates all feedback. He can be reached via email at bluecougarfootball@gmail.com

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