LOS ANGELES -- It's a fabled venue where stars like O.J. Simpson, Charles White, Ron Dayne and Vince Young delivered the defining performances of their college careers. On Monday, in the 98th Rose Bowl Game, a pair of accomplished running backs, Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Oregon's LaMichael James, will look to do the same.
But if that happens -- if, say, James explodes for 200-plus yards against a Top 10 opponent, or Ball adds the two touchdowns needed to break Barry Sanders' NCAA season record -- will history remember the former Heisman finalists with the same allure as other distinguished running backs before them? Or, in keeping with the sport's growing favoritism toward passing, will they be dismissed as the first known "system" running backs?
"I think with any team the running back obviously is a product of the system," said Ball. "That's a good thing."
Sure it is -- if you're talking about producing a potent offense and winning football games. The Pac-12 champion Ducks, which went 11-2 and average 46.2 points per game, and the Big Ten champion Badgers (11-2, 44.6) excel at both. The unique ways they do it, however, may be desensitizing us to a pair of outstanding individual performers who, in another era, would have been the talk of their sport.
While quarterback has long been the most lionized position in sports, running backs got more than fair due for most of college football history. There was a time in the '70s and '80s when it seemed like a new, "once in a generation" runner -- Earl Campbell, Marcus Allen, Herschel Walker, Eric Dickerson, Bo Jackson -- emerged seemingly every year.
But as offenses place increasing emphasis on the pass, the image of the iconic running back has begun to fade. How many truly transcendent runners have passed through the college ranks in the 2000s? Arguably, just two: Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson, a Heisman runner-up as a true freshman in '04, and Arkansas' Darren McFadden, runner-up in both '06 and '07. TCU's LaDainian Tomlinson played his last season in 2000 but wasn't widely known until he played in the pros. USC's Reggie Bush won the 2005 Heisman as more of an all-purpose threat. Alabama's Mark Ingram won two years ago but was often overshadowed by his own backfield mate, 2011 finalist Trent Richardson.
Meanwhile, none of them achieved as much sustained success as James has the past three seasons, rushing for 4,923 yards and 52 touchdowns. He's widely expected to turn pro after the season, but if he stayed -- and stayed healthy -- he'd have a chance to shatter Dayne's all-time FBS career rushing record (6,397). He's rushed for at least 1,500 yards all three seasons and has seven career 200-yard games.
"He's as good as anybody in the country," said Wisconsin co-defensive Charlie Partridge. "He's special. He's fast. He's got great vision. He's got great patience, which some guys with his kind of speed don't necessarily have that. He's really as good of a back as you'll see."
James this year led the country in rushing yards per game for a second straight season, notching 149.6 per game, up slightly from 144.3 last year. But while those numbers were good enough to earn an invite to New York for last year's Heisman festivities, this year he finished a distant 10th in the voting. Part of that could be chalked up to an underwhelming 54-yard night in a season-opening loss to LSU. Missing two games in October with a dislocated elbow didn't help either, nor did the Ducks finishing the regular season 11-2, not 12-0.
But there's also the growing sentiment that for all his 60-yard runs and 200-yard games, the speedy James is fairly replaceable in Chip Kelly's spread offense. The evidence is the fact that his backup, Kenjon Barner, has averaged a nearly identical 144.3 yards in the three games James missed last season and this. Or the fact that freshman De'Anthony Thomas is arguably Oregon's most explosive runner.
Ball, a junior who emerged on the scene late last season and has averaged 140.9 yards in his past 18 games. He leads the country this season with 1,759 rushing yards.
"I don't know how he didn't win the Doak Walker Award," James said of Ball. "I think he's a phenomenal running back.
But Ball suffers from much the same stigma as James. His prolific rushing numbers aren't that different from those of former Wisconsin backs Dayne, Michael Bennett, Anthony Davis, Brian Calhoun and P.J. Hill, all of whom finished a season in the Top 10 since 1999. With their powerful, beefy offensive lines, it's easy to think whomever lines up in the Badgers' backfield will inevitably pop off big yardage.
"If you put LaMichael behind that size of [Wisconsin's] offensive line, I think we'd have a new record in college for rushing yards in a season," said Oregon's Barner. "But you know, to each his own. This offense is built for LaMichael and that offense is built for Montee Ball."
Where Ball has separated himself from all those former Badgers -- even Dayne -- is his ability to get in the end zone. With three rushing touchdowns and one receiving score against Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, Ball raised his season total to a staggering 38 (32 rushing, six receiving), one shy of Sanders' record-setting 1988 total. (Sanders' number came in 11 games, not 13.)
But while Ball made it to New York, he never seriously contended for the Heisman, finishing a distant fourth behind Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Alabama tailback Trent Richardson, whose numbers don't match Ball's but helped lead his team to the BCS championship game.
A spectacular performance Monday might help ensure he's remembered for more than just a singular statistic.
Ball and his teammates had a similar opportunity in last year's Rose Bowl against TCU but fell short, 21-19. Still just an emerging name then after supplanting former star John Clay in early November, Ball ran for 132 yards on 22 carries, including a four-yard touchdown with 5:32 left that resulted in the final margin.
"We didn't approach last year as if it was a business trip," said Ball. "... We keep telling each other why we're here in Pasadena and what we're trying to accomplish."
Meanwhile, James is looking to erase the memory of two BCS disappointments. Two years ago in this game he ran for just 70 yards on 15 carries in a 26-17 loss to Ohio State, at one point injuring his shoulder. Auburn held him to 49 yards on 13 carries in last year's BCS championship.
"I want to win a bowl game," said the fourth-year junior. "I look at every game like it's my last game. I can go out there and break my ankle, turn my ACL, God forbid that happens. You have to look at every game like it's your last game and that's how I play them."
It probably will be James' last college game, and for all his accomplishments, the lack of a big game against a marquee non-conference opponent threatens to damper his legacy. And in the event Ball takes his talents to the NFL, a record-setting finale might offset his relatively short career when we look back on his impact.
"I'm firmly against this being the last game I block for [James]," said Ducks guard Carson York. "But if it is, let's put on a show."
Let's hope it's one for the memories.