Jefferson wins Russell Athletic Bowl MVP

Sophomore running back Johnny Jefferson carries the ball into open field during the Russell Athletic Bowl against No. 10 North Carolina at the Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, Fla. Photo credit: Sarah Pyo

ORLANDO, FLA. – There may have been several uncertainties surrounding the nation’s top offense due to a bevy of injuries at crucial positions, but by the end of the night, Baylor left little to be questioned as they won the Russell Athletic Bowl against North Carolina 49-38.

The Bears ground game could not be stopped and they steamrolled the Tar Heels for a bowl record of 645 total rushing yards. While there were multiple contributors in the rushing attack, none were as extraordinary as running back Johnny Jefferson.

From the start it was apparent that it would be the sophomore’s night. He carried the ball 23 times for 299 yards, which resulted in a Russell Athletic Bowl record, as well as a team bowl record. Jefferson also ran for three touchdowns to set the Russell Athletic Bowl record for rushing touchdowns by a single player.

“I have to thank the coaches for giving me the opportunity and I want to thank the offensive line because without them this wouldn’t have happened,” Jefferson said.

The Killeen native consistently came up with big chunks of yards when the Bears needed it the most. His ability to shift in and out of holes helped him gallop to a 13 yards per carry average.

His noteworthy exploits didn’t stop in the running game, though. Jefferson completed a crucial fourth down pass for 24 yards late in the first quarter to trigger the Bears’ scoring. Every time the 5-foot-10, 210 pound RB touched the ball; it seemed that something good happened.

But the running back seemed to save his best for last.

Jefferson’s most impressive run came on an 80-yard run to put Baylor up 42-24 late in the third quarter, effectively icing the game. The showcase of speed and power resulted in the longest run of his career.

After receiving constant doubt with five starters out on the offensive side of the ball, the Bears silenced the critics with one of their most dominating performances of the season. Many wondered if Baylor could keep up its imposing running game without starting running back Shock Linwood.

“Everybody was saying the game was going to be on us with all those guys out,” Jefferson said. “So we just wanted to make them stop the run, and that’s exactly what we did.”

Jefferson took full advantage of the opportunity to start and collected multiple records, as well as the Most Valuable Player award for the Russell Athletic Bowl. His 299 rushing yards were eight shy of tying the all-time FBS record for most rushing yards in a game.

After the game, Jefferson said it was by far his best performance in his playing career, at any level.

“With how much we rotate, there’s not a true starter at running back,” Jefferson said. “It’s just about taking advantage of the opportunities when you get them.”

The stellar performance from Jefferson gave Baylor its first bowl victory since 2012.

“It’s a great feeling,” head coach Art Briles said. “We felt good coming into tonight and we delivered. It’s a great exclamation point for this year.”