Upsets. Alabama having a terrifying defense. A player no one expected ripping off huge performances to win the Heisman. These are the constants of every college football season and there’s one more that still exists in today’s golden age of almost every college football game being televised somewhere: a player from the West Coast who rarely gets their due.
Last year, it was Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, who entered the Heisman conversation much later than his Eastern/Central time zone counterparts simply due to the fact that his games were played long after much of the country had gone to bed. McCaffrey at least had the benefit of playing at a college football power in Stanford. This year’s under-the-radar West Coast star? He’s playing at a Group of 5 school.
Donnel Pumphrey doesn’t necessarily look the part of a dominant running back in today’s game. Listed at 5’9″ and 180 pounds, Pumphrey is undersized in an era of athletic marvels that play the game. He plays for San Diego State, in the Mountain West conference, with very few of his games played before a national television audience. He doesn’t produce the Vine-worthy (R.I.P) plays that LSU’s Leonard Fournette does, nor does he produce the mind-boggling, all-around stat lines that we saw from McCaffrey last season. Yet, there has been no more productive running back in the past four years, and, if he continues his current pace, he will stand alone atop the record books as the most productive running back in NCAA history.
In putting up 223 yards on 32 carries in the Aztecs 40-13 win over Utah State, Pumphrey moved into fifth place all-time on the NCAA rushing yards list with 5,741. The four players in front of him are: De’Angelo Williams (6,026), Tony Dorsett (6,082), Ricky Williams (6,279), and Ron Dayne (6,397). Pumphrey is currently averaging 183.3 yards per game and with four games left and if he continues that pace, Pumphrey would surpass Dayne’s career mark during the team’s final game of the regular season against Colorado State.
The final four Aztecs opponents are as follows: home vs Hawaii, at Nevada, at Wyoming and home vs Colorado State. Of those four opponents, Wyoming has the best rush defense by yards allowed per game at 141.9 (40th nationally).
Colorado State (189.5, 85th) is the next “best” rush defense, while Hawaii and Nevada rank among the worst run defenses in the country, allowing 255.1 (122nd) and 268.3 (124th) yards per game, respectively.
So, in summation, three of the final four teams that Pumphrey will face are allowing more rushing yards per game than he’s averaging this season. His chance to break the record look pretty good.
There’s one caveat to point out here: The leaders on the NCAA’s all-time list don’t have their bowl game stats included in their rushing totals. If Dayne’s bowl stats were included, as Fox Sports’ Stewart Mandel astutely noted, he would have 7,125 yards to his credit; a number far beyond the reach of Pumphrey and really any other back.
However, Dayne also played in an era that was still focused on running the ball more than throwing it and played in an offense at Wisconsin that has consistently produced ridiculous running back numbers. Pumphrey is doing this in an age in which we see everybody throwing the ball around at a ridiculous rate.
If he surpasses Dayne, there will be arguments (in sports when are there not?) about who is better and whether the bowl stats should count. Either way, what Pumphrey is doing, largely outside of the national spotlight, is something to be lauded. If you needed any more reason to watch college football as we enter its traditionally wildest month, there’s a young man out west who is chasing history.
Adjust your bedtime accordingly.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.