State College, Pa. - Not only did Penn State's Larry Johnson single-handedly embarrass the Spartans on Saturday, he solidified his place among the NCAA's best all-time tailbacks.
With 279 rushing yards on 19 carries (14.7 per carry), Johnson became just the ninth running back - and the first in Big Ten history - to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark in a single season. The 6-foot-2, 222-pound senior finished the season with 2,015 yards, and he never touched the ball in the second half of Saturday's game against MSU.
His performance helped No. 15 Penn State (9-3 overall, 5-3 Big Ten) steamroll the Spartans (4-8, 2-6) 61-7.
"The guys who came before me really set the trend of what running backs should be and what they should do, and it was definitely a stepping stone for me to look forward to," Johnson said. "I didn't really realize until I sat down that it happened."
But judging from the hundreds of flashbulbs bursting throughout Beaver Stadium, the 108,755 fans in attendance knew exactly what Johnson accomplished with a 38-yard, record-breaking touchdown run in the second quarter.
"He's like a man playing against boys out there right now," Penn State head coach Joe Paterno said. "He's terrific."
Paterno's statement is a bold one, but the numbers back it up.
Johnson has shattered school records during his senior season - his only as a starter. Not only is his rushing total the best single-season mark, his 2,575 all-purpose yards are a single-season record, and his 341 receiving yards are the best for a Nittany Lion tailback in a single season.
As if that wasn't enough, Johnson's performance Saturday was his fourth 200-plus yard rushing performance of the season, both a career and single-season school record. He averaged 8 yards per carry and 8.8 in conference games this season, setting an NCAA and Big Ten record, respectively.
"There can't be three or four players any more important to their football team than he is to this one," Paterno said. "You can't play any better than he has the whole season."
With that said, many believe Johnson should be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. And with a 2,000-yard season to flaunt in front of voters, his chances look a lot better. Of the eight other backs to gain 2,000-plus yards, five took home the hardware.
"As far as the Heisman watch, there's a lot of politics that play into that," said MSU sophomore linebacker Ronald Stanley, who spent the first half chasing Johnson along with the rest of the Spartan defense. "As far as his numbers, yeah, he should be included in the Heisman race."
Stanley said he didn't realize how close Johnson was to 2,000 entering the season finale. But he said Johnson definitely earned his respect.
"He's very talented, and he's going to have a great future ahead of him," Stanley said. "He's just a great back."