On his best day in uniform, LaDainian Tomlinson carried the football 43 times for 406 yards. On a Saturday afternoon in 1999, against the University of Texas-El Paso, the man who would become a the San Diego Chargers legend led TCU to a 52-24 win, racing past Troy Davis (378), Marshall Faulk (386) and Tony Sands (396) to claim the NCAA record for most rushing yards in a single game.
This was before he earned two rushing titles and six nods as an All-Pro in a long and prosperous NFL career. In fact, when Tomlinson retired in the summer of 2012, his NCAA record still stood. So it’s easy to understand why Wisconsin’s Heisman trophy candidate Melvin Gordon created such a stir when he eclipsed the mark on October 15 with 408 yards versus Nebraska.
What’s harder to fathom is how just seven days later a humble true freshman from Oklahoma—a team without its first-string quarterback, star wide receiver and best tight end—rumbled for 427 yards in the 11th game of his young career. But that’s precisely what Samaje Perine did on Saturday—in a driving rainstorm that delayed kickoff by 90 minutes. On his first carry, he reeled off a 49-yard run for a touchdown. On his last, he scampered for 42 yards. In between, he added TD runs of 33, 34, 66 and 27 yards. By game’s end, he had clearly beaten the fight out of Kansas’s defenders.
It’s always hard to put a college football record into perspective. The skeptics didn’t wait long to start scrutinizing the number of rushing attempts each back needed to surpass the 400-yard mark: Tomlinson 43, Perine 34, Gordon 25. They quickly questioned the quality of Perine’s competition—a defense ranked 84th in the nation against the run. But here’s all you need to know: Legions of great running backs have played college football since 1999 and all have at one time or another faced cupcake competition. Only Tomlinson, Gordon, and, yes, Perine have crossed the 400-yard threshold.
Even more telling, the 20-year-old Sooner volunteered to come out of the game late in the third quarter, when he was still 35 yards short of making history. “You can put one of the other guys in,” he told his position coach. “The record is not important.” Oklahoma’s offensive linemen wouldn’t hear of it. They too had a stake in the kid’s performance. When all was said and done, Perine told the media, “I’m not really feeling special in any type of way.” Maybe he was just feeding the media a line, maybe his ego is far larger than his coaches and teammates are willing to acknowledge. But surely, Perine will look back one day and marvel at what he accomplished on Saturday.
He may not surpass LaDainian Tomlinson’s NFL record, but for one afternoon at least, he ran with the best running backs in history and came out on top.
Photos by Brett Deering / Getty Images