Flashback: The Nation’s Unexpected Leading Rusher

Every football season has its share of unexpected events. Riley Nelson taking over the starting quarterback duties, and Michael Alisa becoming the number one running back are two such events for the Brigham Young Cougars from the 2011 season. One unexpected event 40 years ago was so great that no one at BYU has ever replicated it.

In 1972, BYU knew it could run the ball. Pete Van Valkenburg, Dave Coon, and Steve Stratton all rushed for over 500 yards the year before. The talk in town, however, was about BYU planning to emphasize throwing the ball. Someone forgot to tell Van Valkenburg.

When BYU opened the season against Kansas State, Van Valkenburg made a statement rushing for 164 yards on just 16 carries. He continued his superb play in game two against the Utah State Aggies. A hip injury forced him to leave the game early and limited his production to just 72 yards. He wouldn’t return from the hip pointer until game four.

Van Valkenburg made up for lost time in game four against Long Beach State. Two of his three touchdown runs were from 64 and 73 yards away. When all was said and done, Van Valkenburg carried the ball 19 times for an incredible 247 yards (13.0 average yards per carry).

Against UTEP, Fleet Pete scored two more touchdowns, and two weeks later against Colorado State he rushed for 84 yards, but it wouldn’t be until the Wyoming game that Van Valkenburg would make another statement.

The Cowboys had a hard time keeping Van Valkenburg in the corral. He carried the ball 26 times, scored twice, and averaged over seven yards a carry. Behind Van Valkenburg’s 184 yards rushing, BYU won 33-14 and improved to 5-3 on the season.

A loss to Arizona followed the next week, but Van Valkenburg was strong in defeat. He rushed for 155 yards on 30 carries and went over 1,000 yards for the season. It was just the second time a BYU player had reached this milestone. With two games left, Van Valkenburg needed 112 yards to break Eldon Fortie’s school record of 1,149 yards rushing in a season.

Van Valkenburg got the rushing record the next week against Utah with 158 yards. He also broke his own school record for most carries in a game (36) by carrying the ball 37 times. With the school single season rushing record secured, Van Valkenburg eyed a bigger prize.

In his last three games, Van Valkenburg had rushed for 497 yards. He was surging up more than just the BYU single season rushing list; he was in striking distance of leading the entire nation in rushing. However, it would take another big game, 175 yards to be exact, for Fleet Pete to finish ahead of Miami (OH) running back Bob Hitchens.

Realizing what was at stake, the Cougar coaches called Van Valkenburg’s number 35 times in the season finale against New Mexico. It was more than enough. Van Valkenburg turned those 35 carries into 190 yards.

Pete Van Valkenburg from BYU was the nation’s leading rusher for 1972 with 1,386 yards.

In just 10 games played, Fleet Pete carried the ball 232 times that season (another school record). He rushed for over 100 yards six times.

For his monumental accomplishment, Van Valkenburg was recognized as first team All-WAC, second team All-American (Universal Sports), and third team All-American (Associated Press).

Nothing could have been more unexpected in 1972. BYU was going to be the team that started throwing the ball because they were unable to compete rushing the ball. Van Valkenburg disagreed. Not only could BYU run the ball, the Cougars had a running back that could do it better than anyone else in the nation.

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