INDIANAPOLIS – The man leading the Louisville Cardinals to a fourth quarter comeback win over Purdue Saturday night? That's last year’s Heisman winner, No. 8, Whatshisname.
OK, so the lack of pre-season buzz in the general vicinity of Lamar Jackson hadn’t been that bad. But it’s hard to think of another returning Heisman winner who began a season so hype-less. Try to find any quarterback ranking or early Heisman watch that begins with his name. You won’t. Not with USC’s Sam Darnold in the conversation, even if he had to hustle Saturday to beat Western Michigan. And Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, who threw 20 passes against UTEP and missed on one of them.But the guy who held up the trophy last December at the age of 19 – the youngest winner ever? The reaction seems to have been pretty much the same everywhere.
Oh, yeah. Him, too.
Jackson says he doesn’t think about it. He says it doesn’t bother him. “I just care about my teammates and winning games,” he mentioned the other day. He passed for 378 yards in the 35-28 victory win over the Boilermakers, and added a couple of his hairpin-turn runs, where he goes thisaway, and then thataway. His 107 rushing yards gave him 485 total for the night, which is a reason Louisville survived 10 false start penalties and three lost fumbles, two on plays at the Purdue 1-yard line.
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Such boo-boos are a good way to lose a first game, but the Cardinals didn’t, so maybe everyone will remember now how Jackson ended up on the Heisman podium last year, even if Saturday wasn’t pretty. “I think I did all right but it’s a team game, it’s really not my game,” he said.
"He did what he needed to do to let us win,” coach Bobby Petrino said. “What a great competitor. To see the way he competed and played, and the way he handled himself on the sideline and in the huddle, he truly just wanted to win the game.”
But the most ringing endorsement came from the other sideline. It was Jeff Brohm’s first game as Purdue coach. He used to play quarterback for Louisville; Jackson passed him in Cardinal career passing yards in the first quarter Saturday night.
“For those that don’t think he’s the favorite, I beg to differ,” said Brohm, who is still close enough to his alma mater that this summer he went to the wedding of Petrino’s daughter. “The guy’s that dynamic. He’s a once-in-a-generation player. He makes guys miss, he makes multiple guys miss, and he pretty much does it every week.”
So you wonder. Why the lack of noise around the man with the Heisman?
Well, last season’s fade – coming too late to cost him many votes – is a good place to start. Louisville’s final three games included a pounding by Houston, an upset loss to Kentucky and a dreary 29-9 bowl shellacking by LSU, which held Jackson to no touchdowns. He was sacked 22 times in those three defeats. By the way, he was sacked none by Purdue.
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There’s also this fact of life: Louisville’s program has come lightyears, but in terms of national profile, it is still not USC, or Oklahoma. Or Ohio State, where J.T. Barrett is still around. And Penn State, where running back Saquon Barkley’s helmet is already in the Heisman ring, amid much ado. It’s easy to get missed among the bluebloods.
Besides all that, history is against him. Only one guy has repeated as a Heisman winner, and that was Ohio State’s Archie Griffin 42 years ago. Times were different then when it came to putting up big stats. Griffin won his second while rushing for 245 fewer yards than the season before, and scoring only four touchdowns.
Since Ohio State’s Troy Smith — circa 2006 — is the only senior Heisman winner in the past 14 years, there have been ample opportunities for someone to join Griffin. It hasn’t worked out.
ICYMI: Lamar Jackson throws his first TD of the season. https://t.co/G4EwyALCkU— LouisvilleFootball (@UofLFootball) September 3, 2017
Several Heismaners were juniors who headed for the NFL. The Cam Newtons and Marcus Mariotas of the world. Then there was Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford, winning in 2008 but injured the next season, playing only three games, and not finishing in the top 10 in the voting. Nor did Alabama’s Mark Ingram Jr., who won in 2009, but had his production fall by nearly half in 2010, as he struggled with a knee issue.
Even big numbers haven’t been good enough. Tim Tebow won as a sophomore in 2007, then finished third and fifth, even though his touchdown-interception ratio was better as a junior, his completion percentage was higher as a senior and the Gators were 13-1 both those years.
Johnny Manziel went from Heisman to fifth in 2013, even though he had a better completion percentage and passed for 400 more yards and 11 more touchdowns. But he didn’t beat Alabama his second season. Jameis Winston dropped from Heisman to sixth in 2014, with 15 fewer touchdown passes and not defending the national championship.
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So here comes Jackson, 12 pounds heavier than last season, and by all accounts improved in several facets of quarterbacking. That was not his A-game Saturday – “We weren’t able to unleash him running the ball,” Petrino noted – but he won the Heisman in 2016 by wowing voters nearly every week with a stat sheet that smoked. So finishing with 485 yards was not a bad start.
“I’ll tell you what I like about Lamar,” Petrino said last week. “He goes out on the practice field and tries to outwork every single person out there. He tries to sprint all the way to the end zone and turn around and jog all the way back and not miss the next play, ever.
“He loves being part of a team. If you were in the locker room walking around, you wouldn’t know that the Heisman winner was in that locker room.”
Jackson might have suffered a Heisman hangover last winter. He would hardly be the first, which might be another reason Griffin still stands alone.
“I think it was a struggle going to all the different awards things after the season, and being out of his element so much, and the anxiety that it caused. That was wearing on him,” Petrino said. “He lost weight and he wasn’t himself for a little while. Then we got spring ball started and he was right back to being himself.”
Seemed that way Saturday, anyway. The season, and Heisman race, are on. Darnold, Mayfield, Barkley. Lamar Jackson? Oh yeah. Him, too.