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Running wild

Cotton Bowl features intriguing rushing battle

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Posted: Friday December 25, 1998 03:16 PM

  Mississippi State's James Johnson (22), who rushed for 1,383 this season, isn't well known like Ricky Williams Andy Lyons/Allsport

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) -- In many ways, James Johnson and Ricky Williams are similar -- big, bruising runners with breakaway speed and bright futures.

The leading rushers for No. 25 Mississippi State and No. 20 Texas, respectively, who play in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day, provide an intriguing matchup.

"They are two good backs. The difference they have over a lot of other backs is they are full-speed when they hit the line of scrimmage," said State coach Jackie Sherrill. "A lot of other backs go east and west and it takes them a little longer.

"Neither one runs a 4.4 [40-yard dash], but they are very powerful backs and accelerate very quickly. When they see an opening, they are gone."

Johnson and Williams, both seniors in the 225-pound range, get most of their yardage after initial contact.

While Johnson made his impact at Mississippi State in just two seasons, Williams won this year's Heisman Trophy while becoming the NCAA career rushing leader.

"He and Ricky have a lot of similarities. They are big and strong, and make so many yards after contact," said Texas coach Mack Brown. "It will be a special game for people across the country who like watching a running game."

Williams ran for 2,124 yards and 27 touchdowns this season. In his college career, he has set or tied 16 NCAA records and 44 school marks, including career records for yards (6,279), scoring (452 points), touchdowns (75) and all-purpose yards (7,206).

Every college football fan knows about Williams. But fewer are aware of Johnson, even though he was the 14th-leading rusher in Division I-A despite being hampered by injury the last three games.

Johnson, a former junior college transfer, is the only Mississippi State runner ever with two 1,000-yard seasons.

After a 209-yard rushing effort in a loss at Kentucky, Johnson set a school record with 237 yards rushing and 312 all-purpose yards against Alabama. That 26-14 victory on Nov. 14 started a three-game winning streak that gave State its first Southeastern Conference Western Division title.

But J.J. strained his groin against Alabama, apparently on a 58-yard run on the final drive of that game.

His rushing attempts have been limited since. After averaging 23 carries the first nine games, he was held to just 29 total carries the past three games while battling the groin injury and then a sore shoulder suffered on a touchdown dive against Ole Miss on November 26.

"J.J.'s shoulder is still not 100 percent, but hopefully with rest and healing time, he will be okay. His groin is fine," Sherrill said before the Bulldogs departed for Dallas on Christmas Day.

Despite being held to just 106 yards the last three games (including 14 carries for 38 yards in the SEC Championship Game vs. No. 1 Tennessee), Johnson almost became the first Bulldog to win the SEC rushing title.

Johnson led the SEC with 1,383 rushing yards and 5.9 yards per carry, but his 115.3 yard-per-game average was just behind Kevin Faulk of LSU (116.3 ypg), who won his second straight league rushing title because Johnson's first postseason game counted in the league stats.

While Williams won the Heisman Trophy, Johnson won the Mississippi equivalent, taking home the Conerly Trophy given annually to the Magnolia State's top player.

Playing against a Heisman Trophy winner in the Cotton Bowl could be a good omen for the Bulldogs.

Sherrill took Texas A&M to three straight Cotton Bowls in the 1980s. He won two of them, 36-16 over Auburn and Heisman winner Bo Jackson in 1986 and 35-10 over Notre Dame and Heisman winner Tim Brown in 1988.

 
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