(WSPA) – The sports team at WSPA has created a ‘Top 10 Moments in South Carolina Athletics’ countdown. Starting Tuesday April 14, we will be revealing portions of the list nightly on 7 News and online at wspa.com leading up to the top moment in Gamecocks history. Be sure to follow along as we break down these monumental achievements featuring interviews with Phil Kornblut of Sports Talk Radio Network.
#8 George Rogers’ 1980 Heisman Trophy season
Few players, if any, have been more dominant in a Gamecock jersey than running back George Rogers.
Transitioning from fullback to tailback early in his career, Rogers made his presence felt from the start. With an expanded role in the 1978 and ’79 seasons, Rogers laid the foundation for the most spectacular season anyone in South Carolina football history has achieved.
In 1980, Rogers reached the pinnacle of individual success in college football by winning the Heisman Trophy.
To this day no Gamecock has come close to replicating his performance in that memorable season. But to understand his dominance in 1980, we have to first set the stage for what led to that incredible year.
George Rogers came to the University of South Carolina in 1977 after a standout career at Duluth High School in Duluth Georgia. Despite his high school success, the freshman had to earn a role.
“George was not the most highly touted running back on the team when he came to South Carolina,” said Phil Kornblut of Sports Talk Radio Network.
At that time South Carolina had their featured tailback in Johnnie Wright, and Rogers was brought in to serve as his lead blocker. But entering his sophomore season in 1978, Rogers was given an increased workload, essentially splitting carries with Wright. And it was a successful move as both put up nearly identical numbers with Rogers recording his first 1,000-yard rushing season in college.
But going into the 1979 season Wright suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss the entire year. Rogers was now the featured back, and head coach Jim Carlen wasn’t hiding that fact.
“Jim Carlen was going to run George to death to win football games, so they set up the offense totally around him,” said Kornbut. “They just pounded people with the running game with
The strategy proved to be effective. Rogers toted the football 311 times for 1,681 yards and eight touchdowns (including the bowl game) as the Gamecocks reached 8 wins for the first time since the program’s inaugural season in 1903. They had found their superstar, and the arrow was pointing up as Rogers entered his senior season.
1980 Heisman Trophy Season
Despite a bowl game loss the previous year, George Rogers and South Carolina were still coming off one of the most successful seasons in program history. They found a strategy that worked and they were sticking to it.
“In 1980 the plan was to give him the football and showcase him, and he did not disappoint,” said Kornblut. “He was huge.”
Rogers was a threat in multiple ways, wearing teams down and attacking them from every angle.
“He ran inside, he ran outside,” said Kornblut. “He was an unbelievable combination of size and speed, and durability. He could take a pounding.”
It didn’t take long for people to take notice they could be witnessing a once-in-a-generation performance. Already on a 10-game, 100-yard rushing streak coming into the season, Rogers built on that momentum hitting the century mark in each of the first two games. That didn’t come as much of a surprise as the Gamecocks demolished Pacific and Wichita State by a total of 110-0. But it’s what Rogers was able to showcase against No. 4 USC in week three that began to shape the course of his season.
SC fell to the Trojans, 23-13, but Rogers tallied over 140 yards on the ground keeping the Gamecocks in the contest. And college football took notice. Following the loss, they had to travel again, this time at the Big House against No.17 Michigan.
USC upset the Wolverines behind Rogers’ 142 yards rushing, further thrusting the senior
running back into the national spotlight, and Rogers received high praise from the USC faithful upon the team’s return to Columbia.
Against Duke the following week, he ran for 224 yards, which ranks seventh all-time for a single-game rushing performance by a Gamecock.
Another key moment in the season came on November 1 when South Carolina took on the No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. On a big stage, in front of a nationally televised audience, Rogers lit up the Bulldogs defense to the tune of 168 yards. But it’s one carry that threatened his status as a Heisman winner. Late in the fourth quarter, a rare Rogers fumble helped Georgia, and fellow Hesiman candidate Herschel Walker, earn a 13-10 victory.
The loss didn’t slow Rogers down. He continued to rack up consistent 100-yard games and the Gamecocks finished the regular season 8-3 with a Gator Bowl on the horizon.
In the regular season, Rogers finished with 1,781 yards rushing at 6.0 yards per carry, and scored 14 touchdowns through 11 games.
He finished his Gamecocks career with 22-consecutive games with 100+ yards rushing.
“He was facing seven and eight-man fronts,” said Kornblut. “The defense knew what was coming and they still couldn’t stop him.”
Three candidates were considered to be in serious contention for the Heisman Trophy in 1980: Pittsburgh defensive lineman Hugh Green, Georgia’s Walker, and Rogers. Green was considered the frontrunner throughout much of the season.
Rogers had already been named a unanimous All-America selection, and looked to add Heisman winner to the list. He was named the winner shortly thereafter, receiving 1,128 votes, beating Green by 267.
Kornblut was on the plane with Rogers and other South Carolina athletics officials as they made
their way back from the Big Apple to Columbia, with a flock of fans ready to greet him.
“10,000 people were there waiting,” said Kornblut. “The place was packed. Quite a scene [and] quite a big moment for him and the university. Just based on production I don’t know how you don’t give him the Heisman Trophy that year.”
Rogers finished his Gamecocks career averaging over 5.5 yards per carry, has the most rushing yards by a South Carolina running back in a career (5,204, ahead of second place Brandon Bennett by more than 2,000 yards), and remains the program’s only Heisman winner.
He was drafted first overall by the New Orleans Saints where he was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1981.
He played seven seasons in the NFL (with New Orlenas and Washington) tallying 7,176 yards rushing and 54 touchdowns.
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