The NCAA record book houses several quirky little entries that only list the record and its holder, without any indication of what the old record was or who else came close or how much distance separates first and second places. The high-water mark for consecutive rushes by one player is one of these:
That entry also doesn’t give any context to the record effort itself. So, after watching this game on YouTube and digging through some of the newspaper coverage, I’d like to fill in some of those gaps.
1. Much like our UTEP friend Brooks Dawson, William Howard wasn’t even supposed to be in a position to put his name in the history books.
Howard didn’t start this game. In fact, he didn’t get a single carry in the first half, and these 16 carries only came on Tennessee’s last two possessions. Howard missed the three games before this (two due to injury, and one because of academic suspension), and Head Coach Johnny Majors hinted afterwards that Howard only played at all because of injuries in the Tennessee backfield in the first half.
2. This loss killed an SEC title for the Rebels
Ole Miss last claimed a conference championship in 1963, and most of the seasons between that title and 1986 didn’t see them get close to another. But entering this matchup, Ole Miss sat at 3-1 in SEC play, and they’d just beaten #12 LSU on the road. Georgia, the only SEC opponent to deal Ole Miss a loss thus far, had fallen behind the Rebels in the standings with defeats to LSU and Florida. Most promising of all, Ole Miss didn’t have Alabama or Auburn on the schedule at all. If they could beat Tennessee, and win the Egg Bowl against a slumping Mississippi State, the Rebels would grab at least a share of the SEC title.
Tennessee, on the other hand, was 0-3 in the conference and had suffered close losses to middling Army and Georgia Tech teams. To avoid finishing below .500 for only the second time since 1964, the Vols needed to win their last three, starting with the Ole Miss game.
Fetch your fainting couch: Ole Miss blew the lead in the fourth quarter and lost 22-10. They wouldn’t come this close to a chance at a conference title again until 2015, when Arkansas ruined the Rebels chances at representing the SEC West with a conversion on 4th and 25 in ow ow ow ow stop hitting me!
3. Howard delivered the final 16 nails in the coffin
When Howard got his first carry in this record-setting sequence, Tennessee was clinging to a 15-10 lead with about 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter. At the end of that drive, Howard had run eight times in a row for 36 yards and a touchdown that put Ole Miss’s chances on life support.
A Rebels three-and-out later, Howard went immediately back to work. His combo appeared to be broken when he failed to convert on third down near the Ole Miss 45; Majors sent the punt team out, intending to pin the Rebels deep and lean on his defense.
But because even good football things have an interesting way of turning bad for Ole Miss, Tennessee kept possession after Mississippi was flagged for too many men on the field. On a punt return. After the clock had stopped for a measurement. Hotty Toddy!
Anyways, that penalty gave Howard the chance to get five more carries, bringing his consecutive rushes to the final total of 16. It could have been higher, though. Tennessee called two more running plays after Howard’s 16th-straight carry; they just gave the ball to other rushers.
4. It doesn’t seem like anyone knew Howard had set a record
Though the broadcast and newspaper reports noted how many consecutive carries Howard got at the end of the game, neither indicated that he’d established a new mark in this extremely specific category. Majors didn’t say anything about it either; it didn’t seem like he’d left Howard in to get 16 carries in a row for any reason other than keeping the ball away from Ole Miss.
Without any clue of who held this title before Howard, I can’t even tell you which of those carries broke the old record.
This is where it’s important to remember that college sports don’t have the statistics history infrastructure of the pros. Unless they’re keeping it secret, the NCAA doesn’t have some vast database of every box score, and most of the publicly-available records schools offer start getting fuzzy once you get into the 1990s.
So I have no idea who determined Howard set this record, or when that declaration was made. I also don’t know how they even decided this was the record. Did they just search through old newspapers for a bit and conclude that nobody in modern college football history had ever run the ball 17 times in a row because that kind of thing would have been reported on?
Or did they just pick this record to remind Ole Miss what they squandered in 1986?