Classic Big Ten Football: Michigan State at Penn State, 2002

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Classic Big Ten Football: Michigan State at Penn State, 2002
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Every week, the Big Ten Blog will break down one classic game from the Big Ten's long, storied history. Today, we're looking at one of the Big Ten's greatest rushing performances ever...all in one half.

You can probably thank Joe Paterno and his sense of decency for the reason Larry Johnson didn't obliterate the single-game NCAA rushing record on November 23, 2002. As it stood, Johnson settled for yet another entry in Penn State's record book instead.

Coming into Penn State's 2002 regular season finale, two things were well known:

1) Larry Johnson needed 263 yards to hit 2,000 rushing yards on the year.
2) Michigan State had completely checked out on the season.

This introduced a conundrum of sorts for Penn State—and specifically Joe Paterno. JoePa was absolutely not the type to leave his starters out too long to run up the score or try to rack up personal stats. Coming into the 2002 season, there were only 19 instances of a Penn State back cracking 200 yards in a game, after all, and that wasn't because Penn State was ever bad at rushing the ball.

And yet, by the second half of the 2002 season, Larry Johnson was unstoppable with the football in his hands; he had already registered the three best single-game rushing marks in Penn State's history, all in conference play. He was easily capable of doing it to Michigan State too, but the game would probably get out of hand first, and Paterno wanted no part of that.

What was Paterno to do? Well, the solution was clear: run Larry Johnson over and over in the first half. What ensued was history (skip ahead to 6:45 in the video, or just watch it all if you feel like seeing everyone else's defenses get wrecked).

In one of the most jaw-dropping displays of pure rushing ability, Johnson racked up 278 yards and four touchdowns on just 19 carries, all in one half. Granted, it helped that Michigan State, at 3-8 with a fired coach and a quarterback in rehab, was utterly disinterested in playing that final game with anything more than the minimum of effort. But the Spartans were trying, it appeared; it was just hopeless.

Johnson would parlay that game and that season into winning the 2002 Maxwell Award and becoming a Heisman finalist. His 8.0 yards per carry in the regular season would have been an NCAA record until a lackluster Capital One Bowl pushed him down to 7.8 yards per carry. That's still pretty good.

Johnson was also a first-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs and was, for a time, the most unstoppable tailback in pro football, just like he was in college.

Johnson's career eventually spiraled downward in Kansas City, and he went from the highest-paid running back in the league to released in a alarmingly fast time. Skill at football doesn't always make you a good person. It usually doesn't, in fact.

But all the same, we can always look back to 2002, a season where Larry Johnson was still a collegian enjoying his first taste of success, crushing everybody in front of him, and reigniting a Penn State program that people had begun to doubt. And for one night—one half, even—he was one of the best ever.

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