Streak defies explanation
No FBS team has gone longer than Noles without a 1,000-yard rusher
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Before the season began, back when the running game was still in shambles and the offensive line was a mess, Chris Thompson was asked about the streak.
There might not be a more optimistic person in college football than Thompson. Just 10 months removed from a broken back, he had spent the summer pushing his anything-is-possible philosophy. The streak laughs at optimism.
Sixteen years had passed since a Florida State runner mustered 1,000 yards on the ground, and every fiber of Thompson's "glass half full" personality wanted to say with impunity that the streak would end in 2012. But the reality of the situation forced even Thompson to hedge his bets.
"I mean, it's possible," he said. "I believe it's possible."
"It's amazing that we've not had one," said Gene Deckerhoff, the longtime radio broadcaster for the Seminoles. "It's an anomaly. It's strange."
In the first two months of 2012, Thompson did everything in his power to shift possibility to reality, to end one of the most baffling streaks in college sports and deliver a 1,000-yard season at Florida State for the first time since 1996. But even Thompson was not immune to the somber destiny that has befallen every Florida State tailback since Warrick Dunn left for the NFL. Needing just 52 yards per game for the rest of the season to crack the 1,000-yard mark, Thompson came down awkwardly on his left leg after making a catch in the second quarter in the win against Miami two weeks ago, tearing his ACL and ending his season.
The streak lives on.
On the face, 16 years isn't such a long time. But dive into the specifics, and the baffling nature of the streak comes into focus.
No other team in the country has gone as long without having a runner top the 1,000-yard mark. Coming closest is Texas Tech, a program that for the bulk of its 14-year drought was helmed by pass-happy Mike Leach, now with Washington State. The Cougars have just 268 rushing yards for the season. Just 16 other teams in the country have gone even five years without a running back surpassing 1,000 yards.
While 1,000 provides a nice, round number that looks impressive enough, it's hardly an exclusive club. Last season, 47 running backs topped 1,000. In 2010, 48 did it. In the past five years alone, a runner has reached four figures 258 times, but none of them played at Florida State.
It's not for a lack of talent, either. Since Dunn eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau in 1996, the Seminoles have produced eight running backs who went on to sign NFL contracts. If anything, the problem has been a wealth of riches rather than a single bell cow in the backfield. In fact, during the drought, Florida State has had four seasons in which it rushed for more than 2,000 yards as a team, but no individual runner earned the lion's share.
The litany of explanations for the streak includes the simple and the self-explanatory. Most have played at least some small part in the drought, but none fully explains its existence.
Injuries ended promising seasons, with Thompson being the most recent example. In the 16 seasons without a 1,000-yard runner, however, the team's leading rusher played in every game 10 times.
In Dunn's three consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns from 1994 through 1996, FSU had a nearly perfect 50-50 split in run-pass ratio, and in the years since, there have been a few seasons in which the passing game took precedence. Overall, though, Florida State has run the ball 51.4 percent of the time, offering ample opportunity for the streak to end.
Those crowded backfields haven't helped anyone's cause, either, and on average, FSU's leading rusher during the streak has carried the ball just 155 times. Of the 47 players to go for more than 1,000 yards in 2011, only two had fewer carries.
For all the potential explanations, there are few excuses. The drought is hardly a recruiting tool, but running backs coach Eddie Gran, who had five 1,000-yard backs during his time at Auburn, makes a point of discussing the drought often. Every year begins with a challenge.
"I look at Warrick Dunn and all the great running backs that came through, I look at it as motivation," said sophomore Devonta Freeman, who will split carries with James Wilder Jr. in Thompson's absence. "Every time I hear somebody say, 'When you going to get that 1,000 yards?' I look at it as motivation. I know I've got to get it. That's something I've got to accomplish before I leave here."
The origins of the streak reside with the most prolific runner in Florida State history.
Dunn wasn't recruited to Florida State as a running back. Former defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews wanted him to play defensive back, but a tug-of-war among the coaches quickly ensued, with Dunn practicing as an option quarterback and a receiver before finally settling into the tailback role.
"He wasn't big, but he was a fast and smart runner," Bowden said. "He was something special."
Dunn finished his career just 41 rushing yards shy of 4,000, topping the 1,000-yard plateau in each of his last three years. In those days, Florida State played just 11 regular-season games, and statistics from bowl appearances weren't counted toward a player's season totals. In the 16 years since Dunn departed as a first-round NFL draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the schedule has expanded to 12 games, the ACC added a conference championship and bowl games now pad the stat lines for players, but no one has managed to produce the numbers he made look so easy.
"The way our running game went after Warrick left, you began to see that we were rotating our backs a lot more and our backs were getting injured at a lot faster rate," said Nick Maddox, who played at FSU from 1999 through 2002. "But it seemed attainable for all of us. Any back that has come to Florida State came there with the intention of being a 1,000-yard rusher. Everybody comes in knowing they could be that guy."
In 2002, junior Greg Jones roared out of the gates behind a veteran offensive line and racked up more than 800 yards with five games to play. He wasn't interested in simply reaching 1,000. Jones had his sights set on the school's record for rushing yards, and midway through the season, he told friends that if he hit the mark, he'd leave for the NFL draft at year's end.
Instead, he finished with just 932 yards. A knee injury forced him to miss the final four games of the season.
"I told myself and a couple of my friends, man, if I break this record, that's going to be it," Jones said. "A lot of my friends knew that, so I was disappointed. But it is what it is."
Two years later, Florida State had two runners with a chance to reach 1,000. Lorenzo Booker and Leon Washington had split carries all year, both wrapping up the regular season within striking distance of the milestone, although Washington's quest seemed a long shot. He'd missed two games with an injury, and entering the 2004 Gator Bowl, he had just 756 yards for the season.
In the bowl game, however, West Virginia rolled out the red carpet for Washington, who racked up a whopping 195 yards rushing on just 12 carries, playing sparingly in the second half and finishing the year with 951 yards.
"After that game, we looked back like, 'Dang, why didn't we try to go for it?'" Washington said.
In the eight years since, no other Florida State runner has come within 150 yards of that elusive 1,000-yard barrier, and an end to the streak seems more out of reach each season.
For seven weeks in 2012, however, Thompson offered hope. His optimism meshed perfectly with his performance, and 1,000 seemed utterly attainable. His teammates viewed his quest for 1,000 not as a possibility but as destiny -- right up until fate laughed at the Florida State backfield once again.
"I know Chris was going to get it if he stayed healthy," Freeman said. "But I hope that me or Wilder or someone from the next batch can come in here and get it."
If nothing else, Thompson's optimism has rubbed off on his teammates. Rather than view his injury as the latest cosmic road block in a quixotic quest for an unachievable feat, Thompson managed to convince Freeman and Wilder that 1,000 yards isn't so far out of reach.
Jones said he sees shades of his own bruising style in Wilder. Washington earned raves for his elusiveness, and he believes Freeman is similar. Both of Thompson's replacements are capable of finally putting an end to the streak before they depart in two years.
Of course, that story has been told before, and the streak lives on.
"When you get those kinds of guys coming in, you have the potential of 1,000-yard backs," Maddox said. "The tradition continues of having the potential."
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