It’s a pretty scary thought for anyone hoping to tackle Rashaad Penny, the San Diego State running back who is a Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I think I’m just starting to figure out how strong I can be,” Penny said.
That was most evident Saturday at UNLV when the 5-foot-11, 220-pound senior bounced a third-quarter run outside and crushed defensive back Tim Hough on his way to a 25-yard run. Hough is also 5-11. And listed 35 pounds lighter.
“It was mind-blowing,” Penny said. “It got everyone excited. The sideline was definitely riled up. We knew I might get him one-on-one, and I wanted to make the most of it.”
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The play wasn’t a big shock to Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, whose team travels to No. 19 San Diego State on Saturday.
“That’s not the only time he’s done that,” he said.
Though it sounds a little unusual for a senior to just start to scratch the surface of his potential, Penny has been patient, on and off the field, slowly developing into one of the most impressive playmakers in college football.
Penny didn’t play football until his sophomore year of high school, focusing primarily on baseball before that. He saw his older brother, Elijhaa, who wound up starring at Idaho and now is with the Arizona Cardinals, tear it up at Norwalk (Calif.) High.
“I wanted to break his records,” Rashaad said. “Football just looked fun when he was playing, so I wanted to do it, too.”
Sure enough, he one-upped his brother, scoring 103 touchdowns and rushing for 5,000 yards. Boise State was among the schools that offered him scholarships. Penny chose to stay fairly close to home and play for the Aztecs, but first he had to play behind Donnel Pumphrey, who graduated last year as the No. 1 rusher in FBS history.
When the Aztecs last played Boise State, back in 2014, Penny had one carry for 1 yard. He had only one other carry that season, then 61 the following year and 135 last season.
Through six games in 2017, Penny has 143 carries for 993 yards, No. 2 in the nation, with nine touchdowns. He also has two receiving touchdowns and a kickoff return touchdown (on just six returns).
“He’s got more rushing yards than 82 (FBS) teams,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “... He’s able to make somebody miss, he’s able to break a tackle, sometimes bounce a play that’s supposed to hit inside. He’s got really good vision, he’s physical, he runs hard and it shows.”
If San Diego State can continue to make a run at a New Year’s Six bowl, then the Heisman talk for Penny will surely follow. He’s currently fifth in ESPN’s poll, fourth at The Sporting News and tied for sixth in USA Today’s poll.
Since former Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore was a finalist for the Heisman in 2010, only one other Group of Five player has been invited to New York: Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch in 2013. The last Group of Five running back to be a finalist was TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson in 2000.
“It’s been amazing, to be honest, being able to do well and help us win games,” Penny said. “If we keep performing, it can only get better. I was ready to be that No. 1 guy, I finally get it, and I only have this season. I knew I had to improve my core strength to handle it, and I’m finally understanding what I’m capable of.”
If he’s Luke Skywalker, just now starting to figure out his power, consider coach Rocky Long his Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Long spoke to the Los Angeles Times last week and discussed recruiting running backs that weren’t necessarily highly touted. He noted how Penny was patient, waiting for his shot behind Pumphrey. Long said, “Some of those tailbacks would love to be in our system, but they’re impatient in this day and age.”
But Penny, who joked that he’d “never blocked in my life” before coming to San Diego State, has developed into another NFL prospect for the Aztecs. According to the school, 648 of his 993 rushing yards have come after contact.
“He’s a power guy,” Long told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “He’s going to look like he’s going really, really slow, then he sees a hole and darts through that hole. You better get your whole body in that hole or you’re not going to slow him down. Then if he gets out in the open, he can outrun you.”
Boise State has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season and ranks No. 18 in rush defense nationally (105.8 yards per game). Penny’s worst game of the season was a 107-yard performance Sept. 30 against Northern Illinois.
“It lets us see where we’re at,” Boise State senior linebacker Gabe Perez said. “He’s up there (with the best). I’ll know more after Saturday. But I know he’s going to be one of the best we’ve seen.”
San Diego State at a glance
Location: San Diego
Head coach: Rocky Long (60-26, seventh year; 125-95 overall in 18 years)
This year: 6-0 overall, 2-0 Mountain West; won 41-10 at UNLV on Saturday
For the Aztecs, it has been a basic but productive formula: Run the ball, don’t turn it over and be feisty on defense. San Diego State is averaging 222.8 rushing yards per game, led by Rashaad Penny’s 165.5 ypg. Only four teams that have played six games have fewer turnovers than the Aztecs’ four. SDSU has allowed 15 sacks, however. Despite being 83rd in total offense, the Aztecs are No. 15 in the FBS with 35 plays of 20 yards or more.
Long’s 3-3-5 defense provides a wide array of blitzes, and the Aztecs’ 17 sacks are tied for 14th-most nationally. Their 310.7 ypg allowed is good enough for 19th, and they’ve forced 12 turnovers (eight interceptions). Special teams play is again a strength. The Aztecs have a pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns on just 11 attempts, and kicker John Baron II is 10 of 12 on field goals.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Christian Chapman, QB: The term “game manager” is often a bit of a backhanded compliment, but working in the Aztecs’ system, the 6-foot, 200-pound junior does exactly what is needed. Chapman has completed 80 of 127 passes (63 percent) for 968 yards, with seven touchdowns and just one interception.
“I see that he’s a winner,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “... I think he’s doing what they’re asking him to do. I think he can throw it, I think he makes good decisions, from a pure quarterback standpoint. He’s a challenge.”
Boise State at No. 19 San Diego State
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: SDCCU Stadium (54,000, grass), San Diego
TV: CBS Sports Network (Carter Blackburn, Aaron Taylor, Jenny Dell)
Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
Records: BSU 3-2, 1-0 (beat BYU 24-7); San Diego State 6-0, 2-0 (beat UNLV 41-10)
Series: Tied 2-2 (Boise State won 38-29 on Nov. 15, 2014, in last meeting)
Vegas line: San Diego State by 7
Kickoff weather: High 60s, clear