Humboldt State's Ja'Quan Gardner is rushing, receiving and returning his way to GNAC football history
Humboldt State had a somewhat disappointing season in 2016, finishing with six wins. The Jacks have turned things around rather quickly, already matching their season total from a year ago and there are three games left on the schedule.
While the Jacks are enjoying a memoriable season, so is running back Ja'Quan Gardner. His stat sheets tell quite the tale of the senior's farewell season. Gardner is currently third in DII football with 1,172 yards, and tied for second with 17 total touchdowns.
His last two games, however, have been remarkable..
Flashback to October 14. The Jacks defeated rival Azusa Pacific 52-49 in one of the most exciting offensive outputs of the entire DII football season. Gardner ran for 293 yards and five touchdowns. He caught a pass out of the backfield, and just to make sure he stuffed every aspect of the stat sheet, he took a kickoff 92 yards to the house.
"Our head coach [Rob Smith] was telling me he couldn't remember in all his years here that he had a kick return for a touchdown," Garnder said. "That was a first for him being here and he's been here for years."
His 446 total yards were a Great Northwest Athletic Conference single-game record, as were his six total touchdowns. He also became arguably the greatest GNAC running back in history that game, breaking the marks for all-purpose yards (6,366), rushing yards (5,124), total touchdowns (67) and points (402).
"With it being midseason, you don't really have a chance to even think about it," Gardner said. "You have to get ready for the next week. Right now it really hasn't sunk in. At the end of the year, I'll probably sit back and be like, 'Wow, I did all of this'".
How does one follow up a historic performance like that? By rushing for over 200 yards with three more touchdowns, of course.
"Our offense is just starting to click right now," Gardner said. "It's the point of the season where you want to get better every week. The offensive line and my wide receivers have done a great job. The coaching staff is doing great trusting me with the ball. It's a big part of our game plan."
Gardner has rushed for 508 yards and eight touchdowns over the past two weeks. That's a season's worth of stats for many running backs in NCAA football. As Gardner rolls on, so do the Jacks, who have the third-best scoring defense in DII football, dropping 46.9 points per game. But, they have one loss.
That one loss came to Central Washington, who is having a memorable season in its own right. The Wildcats are undefeated, atop the GNAC all alone in first place and the No. 8 team in DII. They also have a trip to the Redwood Bowl on November 11. The last game of the season will be a rematch with tremendous postseason implications.
"It's definitely circled on the calendar, and we're definitely going to be ready for it. But we have two weeks until then. We got to make sure we handle business the next two weeks. But that will be one for the history books."
All the numbers, all the records, all the glory. None of it is how Gardner hopes to be remembered after he plays his final game in Arcata, California.
"Being a great competitor, a great teammate," Gardner said of his legacy. "I want to be remembered as a great person in the community, on and off the field. Football is everything, at the end of the day you need to be a great teammate and student to the game."
What else makes Gardner go? Let's go under the helmet and find out more about the hottest running back in DII football.
Favorite football movie: First movie that popped in my head was Remember the Titans.
Favorite NFL team: My teammates get really mad at this. I'm kind of what they call a bandwagoner. I go for the team that's winning. Right now my team is the Eagles.
Running back you modeled your game after: I always used to watch Barry Sanders. I also watched LaDanian Tomlinson and Maurice Jones-Drew. Those three right there are definitely great running backs.
Superstitions: I try to keep every game day the same. It's not much of a superstition.
What's in your headphones pre-game? I'm probably listening to some Drake. I got to stay calm. I need to be level-headed, can't get too crazy.
Pregame snack: Skittles. Skittles get me going.
Biggest fear: I can't stand snakes. And I actually hate rats, too.
Favorite cartoon: Dexter's Laboratory.
Favorite part about being a Jack: Getting to play home games at the Redwood Bowl. There's not too many places like it. We got the chainsaws firing up, the crazies, the band. Satruday's in the Redwood Bowl. It's the best.