'RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Chris Johnson of East Carolina set an NCAA bowl record in yesterday's Hawaii Bowl with 408 all-purpose yards.
Pirates have Johnson’s back after fumble
After his second fumble of the season appeared to have cost his team dearly, Chris Johnson didn't give up hope.
Instead, the East Carolina running back and Hawaii Bowl most valuable player trusted in his teammates. Following Boise State safety Marty Tadman's 47-yard return of Johnson's fumble for a game-tying touchdown with 1 minute, 25 seconds left, ECU quarterback Rob Kass came off the bench to guide the Pirates to within field-goal range, Ben Hartman nailed the 34-yard game-winner as time expired, and ECU streamed off the Aloha Stadium field as 41-38 winners.
"I was running hard to try to get the first down, get upfield, and I just didn't put two hands on the ball," said Johnson, a senior, who rushed 28 times for 223 yards. "I was like, 'I let my team down,' but when I got back to the sideline they told me they had my back, they love me and all this. I knew they always got my back just like how I got their back."
If not for the clutch play of Kass and Hartman, his late gaffe might have overshadowed an otherwise superb performance: Johnson -- the Conference USA special teams player of the year and national leader in all-purpose yardage per game -- punished the Broncos for an NCAA bowl record 408 all-purpose yards.
He scored on rushing and passing touchdowns to help build a 24-7 lead in the first half.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
East Carolina running back Chris Johnson got tangled up with Orlando Scandrick of Boise State yesterday.
ECU coach Skip Holtz considers himself "the president of the fan club" for the 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior, who sports a grin full of gold teeth. For most of the game, Johnson was golden in front of a national TV audience, bouncing off Bronco tacklers, staying on his feet for long gains and displaying ludicrous speed in the open field to average 8 yards per carry.
Holtz said that Johnson will play in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
"What the rest of the country saw today is what we've been watching for three years," Holtz said. "He is one of the hardest workers we have on this team. He'll carry the ball 30 times and he'll come to practice the next day and he won't miss a beat. We've asked a lot of him over the last couple weeks, and he is a true warrior."
Boise State coach Chris Petersen could only shake his head at Johnson's 68-yard breakaway score in the first quarter.
"We made him look pretty good tonight," Petersen said. "Defensively, that's on us. He's just so strong."
The Broncos did a better job of containing him in the second half by loading the box with more defenders and forcing starting quarterback Patrick Pinkney to make plays -- 181 of Johnson's rushing yards came before halftime.
He feels he stated a pretty good case to NFL scouts regardless. Sherman Williams of Alabama previously held the all-purpose yardage bowl record with 359 yards in the 1995 Citrus Bowl.
"Sure felt good to end my career like this," Johnson said. "I just wanted to come out here and show the whole country I'm the best back in the country."
But without the help of his teammates, an overtime loss to the Broncos would have been a tough thing to swallow during the 4,862-mile journey back to Greenville, N.C.
Said Kass with a grin: "I promise you he'll sleep well all the way home."