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He’s already made history at Harvard.
Now, he’s got a chance to make history for the Ivy League.
Harvard running back Clifton Dawson was among the 16 players named to The Sports Network’s Payton Award watch list, when it underwent its first of three revisions earlier this month.
Over the past five years, having an Ivy League player in contention for the I-AA equivalent of the Heisman Trophy has actually been quite common: Brown wideouts Stephen Campbell and Chas Gessner, Harvard wideout Carl Morris and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and Yale quarterback Alvin Cowan have made appearances.
But none of those players has ever cracked the top five in voting—Gessner came the closest with a sixth-place finish in 2002.
Dawson has a chance to change all of that.
After last weekend’s game against Princeton, the sophomore running back sits fourth in the nation in rushing with 145.1 yards per game. The two players immediately in front of Dawson—Ed Pricolo of Sacred Heart and Sean Mayers of St. Peter’s—both play for mid-major programs and essentially aren’t in the running for the award, leaving the nation’s leading rusher, Charles Anthony of Tennessee State, as Dawson’s lone competition. Remember that name, because we’ll be coming back to him later.
The stat that could sway voters in Dawson’s direction is scoring offense. You’ve all heard that the tailback broke the Harvard single-season touchdown records, held by Chris Menick ’00, in Saturday’s win over the Tigers. What you may not have heard is that Dawson’s 15 touchdowns are the most in I-AA, even surpassing the totals of players who have two extra games under their belts.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Dawson’s average of 15 points per game gives him a three-point lead over the nation’s second-leading scorer, James Johnson of Arkansas Pine-Bluff.
That’s right, Dawson has a field-goal-per-game cushion over his next closest competitor in the scoring offense category. (This statement is not meant to imply that the Harvard running back has attempted or ever will attempt a field goal, but rather was meant for illustrative purposes).
The three-point margin is wider than the margin separating Johnson (12 points per game) from the 13th ranked player in terms of scoring offense, Ken Triboletti of LaSalle (9.25 points per game).
The only thing this compares to is when Tiger Woods used to lead the World Golf Rankings by the same distance that stood between the second-ranked player and the 200 millionth player in the world. But that was before Woods left Butch Harmon, put on some weight and married that Swedish model and former nanny. (On this note, I have a plan. We must prohibit all Swedish models from visiting or attending Harvard. Well, actually, having a quick look around campus, a ban like that might already be in place.)
Incoherent and irrelevant tangents aside, Dawson has clearly put up the numbers so far that will make him a player in the Payton Award race. Another thing working in his favor is that the Crimson is having an outstanding year, and, like the Heisman, players on better teams are at a distinct advantage. In fact, only one player from a losing team—running back Jerry Azumah of New Hampshire, in 1998—has ever won the award, and the last five winners have all come from teams that claimed a conference or national title.
But now that we’ve heard all about Dawson, let’s take a quick look at the rest of the handful of candidates who have a legitimate shot of taking home the award.
Davon Fowlkes, WR, Appalachian State—With his 202-yard, 15-reception performance against Wofford last weekend, Fowlkes catapulted himself into third in receiving yards per game and first in receptions per game. Wide receivers always have a more difficult time swaying voters, especially those whose teams don’t win the conference title, which the Mountaineers (5-3, 3-1 Southern) would need some help to gain a share of.
Charles Anthony, RB, Tennessee State—Anthony is quite possibly the best running back in the country—no offense to the aforementioned player from Harvard—but the same cannot be said for his team. The junior tailback ran for 285 yards and three touchdowns, and he hauled in three receptions for 75 yards and another score, but the Tigers (3-4, 1-2 OVC) still fell to a hapless Samford squad 42-36 in overtime. If there’s a player out there that could take home the Payton Award while playing on a losing team, it’s Anthony. But, as history has shown, the odds aren’t in his favor.
Erik Meyer, QB, Eastern Washington—The 6’2 junior quarterback leads the nation in passer efficiency with a 174.3 rating. His completion percentage of 69.8 is the best in I-AA. But the Eagles have No. 5 Cal Poly and No. 24 Montana State left on their schedule, which could knock the quarterback’s rating down a notch or two. If he survives those tests and Eastern Washington gets the help it needs to win the Big Sky title, Meyer might be the front runner for the award when the ballots are passed out on Nov. 22.
Dustin Long, QB, Sam Houston State—Long got out of the gate strong—except for a four interception performance against Southwestern Missouri State—but since then, he’s been no better than average. Over his past two contests, the 6’3 senior has averaged 16 completions for 231 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He has still managed to hold onto the second spot in passer efficiency rating, but his nine interceptions on the season are tied for the most of any of the top 33 players in that category. His 21 passing touchdowns, however, are the most of any I-AA quarterback. Like Meyer, a few tough conference contests will drastically affect Long’s chances for this award.
Along with Dawson, these players round out my Payton Award top five at this point. So, it seems the Crimson running back finds himself where he’s always found himself since setting foot on the well-groomed grass of Harvard Stadium.
He’s poised to make history, again.
—Staff writer Michael R. James can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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