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The loudest collective gasp I’ve ever heard came courtesy of a Louisville quarterback by the name of Lamar Jackson. He’d just leaped over an entire human. 

It was Sept. 9, 2016, in the Carrier Dome. Syracuse was hosting the Cardinals and Jackson, who before that game hadn’t been in much conversation about the best players in college football. I was a student at SU at the time, sitting in the student section aligned with one of the 20-yard lines. I didn’t know Jackson much more than the rest of the country did. All it took was one half to change that. 

Lamar Jackson’s Syracuse leap

Louisville already led 28-7 when the Cardinals lined up on first-and-goal just inside the Syracuse 10-yard line. Jackson ran a familiar read option play with his running back, Jeremy Smith, who didn’t get the handoff and was blown up by an SU lineman. Jackson took off in a race for the left pylon, but his path appeared to be blocked by Syracuse defensive back, Cordell Hudson. Hudson went low, and Jackson rose up.

I was at the opposite end of the field, about 80 yards away. That didn’t take away any of the majesty of what Jackson had just done. Jackson flew over Hudson and landed on his feet before having a pretty smooth final few steps to the end zone. The gasp took place in that middling moment, as Jackson hung in the air. He’d already taken all the energy out of the Dome with a big early lead. But for one moment, Syracuse fans were just fans of the most impressive athletic feat to take place in an SU football game in a long time.

That was Jackson’s fourth rushing touchdown of the game – he’d already scored from 72, 13 and seven yards on runs. That all came after Jackson threw a 72-yard touchdown over the top to James Quick on Louisville’s opening drive. Within less than five minutes, Louisville led 21-0, and that Jackson leaping touchdown put the Cardinals up 35-7 in a first half that didn’t even feel that close. 

The week before, Jackson had thrown six touchdowns against Charlotte, but it was his monster game against Syracuse — 411 passing yards, 199 rushing yards and five total touchdowns — that began the true Heisman Watch in Louisville.

Lamar Jackson’s Heisman season

After Jackson lit up Syracuse, he didn’t slow down. The next week, he ran for 146 yards and four more touchdowns on the ground in a win over Florida State. Two weeks later, he ran for another 162 yards and two touchdowns in a highly anticipated matchup with Clemson.

The highlights didn’t stop coming, either. He threw for more than 300 yards against North Carolina State and Virginia. He continued breaking the century mark on the ground, against Duke, Boston College, Wake Forest and Kentucky. 

By the end of the season, Jackson was lifting the Heisman Trophy. He finished the year with 3543 passing yards and 30 touchdowns to go with 1571 rushing yards and 21 more touchdowns. The Cardinals finished 9-4.

A year later, Jackson finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting as Baker Mayfield took home the award. The Ravens picked Jackson with the 32nd overall pick in 2018, and the rest is pretty much history. And while by no means did Jackson’s career begin on that September night in Syracuse, his first true Heisman moment was one that made the whole Carrier Dome gasp collectively and still blows my mind four years later.

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September 28, 2020
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