Great Freshman Performances in College Football History: Maurice Clarett

Tim CarySenior Analyst IJuly 31, 2009

MADISON, WI - OCTOBER 19:  Running back Maurice Clarett #13 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball during the Big Ten Conference football game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on October 19, 2002 in Madison, Wisconsin.  The Buckeyes won 19-14.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Forgive Ohio State fans for living in the past. 

With OSU's recent well-publicized BCS failures still stinging, many of my neighbors in the Buckeye State cling desperately to memories from a few years further back.

They remember the good old days when no one would dare suggest leaving an undefeated Big Ten squad out of the national title game.

They remember the not-so-distant time in college football when OSU/Michigan was a big deal outside the Midwest.

They remember the bowl games where a Big Ten team could pull an upset instead of choking as the favorite.

To put it simply: Buckeye fans dream of 2002.

In case you're not an Ohio resident and, therefore, can't rattle off every single play and statistic from seven years ago, 2002 means 14-0, ugly defensive-minded escapes, a double-overtime national title game against the No. 1 team in the nation, one horribly late call in the end zone (Hurricane fans, I feel your pain), and maybe most importantly, Maurice Clarett.

Yes, I am talking about that Maurice Clarett.

While your first thought when you hear Clarett's name may be of an NFL lawsuit, a failed Broncos career, or a current prison sentence, it's easy to forget that once upon a time (about seven years ago), Clarett was busy assembling one of the greatest freshman seasons in college football history.

In fact, if Clarett hadn't been a Buckeye in 2002, Ohio State fans may still be thinking back to the 1960s to celebrate national championships (not all that long from a Cubs fan's point of view, but still).

Let's look at the numbers, shall we?

Although he only played in 11 of Ohio State's 14 games due to injury, the talented tailback amassed 1,237 rushing yards during the fall of 2002 to set the Buckeye freshman record. 

Clarett made his presence felt early with three touchdowns in Week One against Texas Tech and went on to post a season-high 230 yards in a nationally-televised matchup with Washington State a few Saturdays later.

Most remarkable about the outburst against WSU was Coach Jim Tressel's revelation afterwards that Clarett had actually suffered an injury during the contest. 

Despite the pain that would eventually cause him to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery, Clarett finished the game stronger than he started, piling up 194 of his yards in the second half. 

Clarett saved one of his best efforts for the last regular-season game of the campaign, putting up 119 yards on 20 carries against rival Michigan and earning the Bucks a trip to the national championship game.

For the season, Clarett averaged a robust 5.6 yards a carry and found the end zone 18 times, including what would ultimately prove to be the national championship-winning touchdown in OSU's stunning 31-24 upset of Miami (FL). 

The Buckeyes' young star became the first freshman since Ahman Green in 1995 to lead a national title winner in rushing yards.

Unfortunately, as you know, the story doesn't have a happy ending.  Clarett was suspended for the 2003 season by the university, unsuccessfully challenged NFL rules in court, and was ultimately cut by the Broncos before ever playing a game.

The saga then took a turn for the worse as Clarett ran afoul of the law on several occasions.  The once-promising gridiron star is currently serving time in prison, and no one knows if the young man will ever step on a football field again.

Whether he does or not, one thing is certain in Columbus.  When Ohio State fans ponder Buckeye history (and college football history in general), it's obvious they owe their 2002 national title to the breakout freshman season of a running back no one will soon forget.