In 2002, Penn State tailback Larry Johnson became only the ninth player in Division 1-A history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season. What’s more, he accomplished that feat with the highest yards per carry average (8.03) on record.
Joe Paterno, who has coached the likes of Lenny Moore, Lydell Mitchell, Franco Harris and John Cappelletti at Penn State, called Johnson “one of the greatest football players I’ve ever been around, if not the greatest.”
Johnson’s remarkable performance helped bring the Nittany Lions back from two consecutive losing seasons to finish 9-4 and it earned Johnson the 66th annual Maxwell Award as College Football Player of the Year. He is the seventh Nittany Lion to win the honor and only the second Penn State running back, joining Cappelletti, the Upper Darby native who took home the trophy in 1973.
Johnson, a 6-foot 2-inch, 220-pound senior from State College, received 341 first place votes in the Maxwell Club balloting, finishing well ahead of last year’s Maxwell Award winner Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey (246) and Iowa quarterback Brad Banks (198).
It was a breakthrough season for Johnson, who carried the ball just 71 times for 358 yards as a junior with a single-game high of 68 yards against Northwestern. In 2002, he rushed for more than 100 yards in eight different games, went over 200 yards on four occasions (a school record) and set a personal best with 327 yards against Indiana.
“Larry had been one of those guys (who said) ‘Give me the ball, I’m going to run over you if you’re in my way’ instead of waiting for some blockers and trying to be a smart runner,” Paterno said. “But he became a great player and he really lifted our entire football team.”
Johnson, who is the son of Larry Johnson Sr., Penn State’s defensive line coach, scored 23 touchdowns and demonstrated his versatility by catching 39 passes for 341 yards, both school records for a running back. He averaged 214.5 yards of total offense per game, the highest figure among all Division 1-A players in 2002.
Johnson was the first back in the 107-year history of the Big Ten to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season and his 8.8 yards per carry average in conference play was the highest on record. He established a new Penn State single season rushing record, shattering the mark set by Lydell Mitchell 31 years ago.
“Our goal before the season was to help Larry get 1,000 yards,” said Penn State lineman Matt Schmitt. “Getting 2,000 seemed beyond comprehension.”
“I’ve gotten everything I could ask for this season,” Johnson said.
Four of the other backs to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season also were Maxwell Award winners: Ricky Williams of Texas (1998), Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State (1988), Mike Rozier of Nebraska (1983) and Marcus Allen of Southern Cal (1981).