This Week in Heisman History: Barry Sanders caps record season in Tokyo

Barry Sanders had one of the greatest seasons in Heisman history in 1988 (US Presswire)

The 1988 Heisman race started out as a West Coast duel between UCLA's Troy Aikman and USC's Rodney Peete and ended up in Tokyo, Japan, with Oklahoma State junior running back Barry Sanders winning the trophy via satellite announcement.

Sanders was basically an unknown quantity entering the season. He was the backup to All-American Thurman Thomas in 1987 and did an admirable job, rushing for 603 yards and eight touchdowns while leading the nation in kickoff return average.

But upon taking over the starting tailback job, he produced a season that is perhaps the best in the history of the Heisman Trophy.

He started the season by returning the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Miami (Ohio). He had 178 yards and two more touchdowns rushing against the Redhawks, including an 89-yard run.

Against Texas A&M, he rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns and broke off a 61-yard punt return for a score.

Versus Tulsa, he ripped off 304 yards and five touchdowns. He followed that up with 174 yards and four touchdowns against Colorado.

At that point, he was starting appear on the Heisman radar, but Aikman and Peete still dominated the conversation. Sure, Sanders was having a great year, but how would he do against the elite powers of the Big 8, was the question from skeptical media.

Sanders answered those critics by rushing for 189 yards and four touchdowns against No. 7 Nebraska as the Cowboys dropped their first game of the season. Through his five games he had 1,002 yards on the ground, joining USC's Marcus Allen as the only back to achieve that feat.

He continued with a season-low 154 yards and two scores against Missouri, but exploded for 320 yards and four touchdowns against Kansas State one week later.

A 215-yard, two-touchdown game against No. 8 Oklahoma further validated his candidacy, although OSU lost its second game of the year. He then joined Allen and Mike Rozier in the 2,000-yard club after ripping through Kansas for 312 yards and five scores.

With two games to play, he was just 339 yards short of Allen's NCAA record of 2,342 rushing yards set in his Heisman-winning season of 1981. After gaining 293 yards and scoring four touchdowns against Iowa State, Sanders' season-total stood at 2,296 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns. The buzz for his Heisman candidacy grew louder and louder.

The 8-2 Cowboys were No. 12 in the country and, after a bye week, they traveled to Japan for their final game against Texas Tech.

During the bye week, No. 1 Notre Dame beat No. 2 USC, 27-10, and Trojan quarterback Peete's Heisman hopes were essentially vanquished.

This week in Heisman history (on Dec. 3, 1988 to be exact) with three quarterbacks in attendance at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York, Sanders was notified of his Heisman triumph via satellite as he and his teammates prepared to play the Red Raiders in Tokyo. The announcement came at 8 a.m. Tokyo time:

Sanders swept all six Heisman regions, beating out Peete and Aikman. 

Heisman Trophy honor in hand, Sanders then went out and rushed for 332 yards and four touchdowns on 44 carries to bring his regular-season rushing total to 2,628 yards and 39 touchdowns.

In those days, bowl games were not counted in NCAA records, but after rushing for 222 yards and five touchdowns against Wyoming in the Holiday Bowl, his total rose to 2,850 yards and 44 scores.

In addition to total rushing yards, Sanders set 33 other NCAA records in 1988, including:

  • Most TDs (39) and most rushing TDs (37) 
  • Most points scored (234)
  • Most 300+ yard games in a season/career (4)
  • Most all-purpose yards in a season (3,249) and per-game (295.5; this record was 50 years old, held by Byron "Whizzer" White) 
Sanders won the Heisman without hype, without a lot of television appearances and without a campaign on his behalf. All he did was go out and set records on the field. 
And for that, he'll always be a college football legend.
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