Johnathan Franklin arrived at UCLA fully aware of the distance he had to travel to match Gaston Green’s career rushing record. And Green says he came to Westwood in 1984 ready to run down Freeman McNeil and climb to the top of the chart.
There are other similarities between the player who is sprinting up UCLA’s career rushing chart and the former player at the top of the list.
Franklin, a compact 5 feet 11, 195 pounds, has now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t speed. Green, at 5-10, 190, often left vapor trails in his wake.
Franklin is the running threat that makes life easier for quarterback Brett Hundley. Green’s presence left quarterback Troy Aikman free to pick apart defenses.
But Franklin hopes to deviate a bit from that lock-step journey.
Green ran into Nebraska the second week of the 1987 season and was held to 46 yards rushing in a 42-33 loss. It snapped his string of eight consecutive 100-yards-rushing games.
Franklin will test his legs against Nebraska on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. He is fresh off a 214-yard performance last week in a 49-24 victory over Rice, which included touchdown runs of 78, 74 and 22 yards.
But the Cornhuskers have a little more starch than Rice.
“They have those corn-fed big boys,” Franklin said. “Nebraska is known for defense.”
Rice, on the other hand, looked like a Universal Studios attraction, parting Red-Sea-style on Franklin’s long runs. Hundley took that tour on the first play from scrimmage, scoring on a 72-yard run.
Franklin’s performance pulled him within 848 of Green’s record of 3,731 yards. Franklin had 1,127 yards rushing as a sophomore and 976 last season. He has 11 regular-season games remaining this year.
“That record has been in the back of my mind,” Franklin said. “It has been for a while. With all the running backs who came through here, it would be humbling.”
Green, now a fitness coach in the Atlanta area, knows how Franklin feels. McNeil’s record was in his sights from the day he stepped onto the UCLA campus.
“The first thing I did was look up his record,” said Green, who played at UCLA from 1984-87. As for his record, Green said, “I’m surprised it has held up as long as it has.”
DeShaun Foster came close. He was within 537 yards of Green as a senior in 2001 when he was suspended the final three games after the sport utility vehicle he was driving was determined to have violated NCAA extra-benefits rules.
Foster was third nationally in rushing at the time, averaging 138.6 yards per game.
Franklin’s blowout against Rice was the second 200-yard game of his career and gave him 2,883 rushing yards in his UCLA career.
“He has got really good vision between the tackles,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. “You look at guys of his stature and they might struggle between the tackles. He finds the creases.”
Rice offered plenty of creases and UCLA rolled up 343 yards rushing. But Nebraska is much higher on the college football food chain.
Green found that out in 1987. He scored three touchdowns against the Cornhuskers, but two came with the game decided. He averaged 2.4 yards per carry.
“I just remember they were a powerful team,” Green said. “They did a lot of stunts. Finding room to run was tough.”
It still is. The Cornhuskers allowed only 11 runs of 20 yards or more in 13 games last season. Only two were touchdown runs of more than 30 yards.
Southern Mississippi managed 185 yards rushing in a 49-20 Nebraska victory last week but did not have a run of more than 17 yards.
“We were a little sloppy with our tackling,” Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said. “It was a first game.”
Overall, Pelini said, “I think our defense has the potential to be outstanding. We’re ahead of where we were at this time last year. But every week presents a new challenge.”
Franklin is this week’s test.