college football

The best Bowl Game performances by a true freshman

Profile Picture: Ashley Anderson

December 17th, 2021

The 2021 college football season saw a number of breakout performances by true freshmen, who showed no fear in their first year of FBS competition.

Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson posted a team-high 1,172 rushing yards for the 10-2 Buckeyes, while quarterback Caleb Williams outshone preseason Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler and assumed starting duties midway through the season.

National title hopeful Georgia also got some help from first-year tight end Brock Bowers, who led the No. 3 Bulldogs with 791 receiving yards and 12 total scores in the regular season.

Now these true freshmen, and a few others across the FBS, will test their mettle under the bright spotlight of college bowl season.

As we look ahead to a full slate of games and the College Football Playoff, let's look back on history to rank the top five performances by a true freshman in a bowl game.

*Honorable mention: QB Jamelle Holieway, Oklahoma, 1986 Orange Bowl

Jamelle Holieway was supposed to sit behind Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman during his freshman season, but an injury to the future Dallas Cowboys star forced Holieway into the lineup in a loss to Miami — the only defeat he would suffer at quarterback for the remainder of the season.

Today considered one of the best option quarterbacks in FBS history, Holieway ran Oklahoma's dynamic wishbone attack, which head coach Barry Switzer switched to following Aikman's injury to cater to Holieway's unique skill set.

The change paid off, as Holieway led Oklahoma to seven straight victories and earned the team a spot in the national championship at the Orange Bowl against No. 1 Penn State.

While his bowl game performance wasn't his top outing of his freshman season, he did throw a 71-yard touchdown to tight end Keith Jackson and marched the Sooners down the field to kick three field goals in the second quarter in a 25-10 victory over Penn State.

The win made Holieway the only true freshman to quarterback a national title team, until another player on this list joined him in that feat in 2018.

5. RB Marcus Dupree, Oklahoma, 1983 Fiesta Bowl

Another standout freshman at Oklahoma, Marcus Dupree quickly worked his way into the lineup during his first year under Switzer, who noted, "He was the best player on the field. Earl Campbell was the only other guy I ever saw who was like that — physically ready, as a true freshman, to be the best player on a great college team."

Dupree scored his first college touchdown on a 63-yard fake reverse in the fifth game of the season and finished his freshman year with 1,393 rushing yards and 12 rushing scores on 163 carries.

With an 8-3 record, the No. 12 Sooners gained a bid to the Fiesta Bowl, where Dupree exploded for 239 rushing yards on just 17 carries (good for a 14 yards-per-carry average) against No. 11 Arizona State.

While Oklahoma ultimately lost 32-21, Dupree was named offensive MVP and only played a little over half of the contest, as he dealt with injuries, including bruised ribs and a pulled hamstring.

His rushing total is still an all-time record for the Fiesta Bowl.

4. RB Herschel Walker, Georgia, 1981 Sugar Bowl

One of the greatest college players of all time, Herschel Walker was an instant success his freshman year at Georgia, and was pivotal to the Bulldogs' 1980 national championship run.

With a whopping 1,616 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on 274 attempts, Walker carried Georgia to an undefeated record and was named MVP of the Sugar Bowl, in which the Bulldogs claimed a national championship with a win over Notre Dame. 

In a low-scoring 17-10 outcome, Walker ran 36 times for 150 yards and reached the end zone twice against the Fighting Irish.

Walker outgained his entire team, which is all the more impressive when you consider he suffered a dislocated left shoulder early in the game.

3. QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson, 2019 national championship

During the 2018 season, Trevor Lawrence split time at quarterback with senior Kelly Bryant, until Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney named the true freshman the full-time starter ahead of the Tigers' fifth game of the season.

From there, Lawrence spearheaded an undefeated campaign and led Clemson to blowout victories over Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship Game, trounced No. 3 Notre Dame, 30-3, in the College Football Playoff national semifinal at the Cotton Bowl, and handed Alabama an embarrassing 44-16 loss in the national championship game.

Lawrence was masterful in the Cotton Bowl, as he went 27-of-39  for 327 passing yards and threw for three scores.

But his production in the CFP national championship was even better. Lawrence racked up another three touchdown passes, threw for 347 yards, and was named offensive MVP, as he handed Nick Saban the worst loss of his career as Alabama's head coach.

2. RB Nick Chubb, Georgia, 2014 Belk Bowl

In his true freshman season at Georgia, running back Nick Chubb sat behind Todd Gurley on the depth chart, until the future first-round draft pick was suspended for an alleged violation of NCAA rules.

In the sixth game of the season, Chubb got his first start against Missouri and ran for 143 yards on 38 carries. He followed that up with a 202-yard, two-touchdown rushing excursion against Arkansas, and ran for at least 100 yards in every remaining game that season.

His best performance of the year came against Louisville in the Belk Bowl, where Chubb rushed for 266 yards and two scores in a 37-14 beatdown.

He finished his freshman year with 1,547 rushing yards, which ranked second in the SEC, after starting only eight games.

1. RB Ron Dayne, Wisconsin, 1996 Copper Bowl

With the help of Ron Dayne, Wisconsin went from a 4-5 team in 1995 to an eight-win squad in 1996, Dayne's freshman season.

The Virginia native accounted for nearly half of Wisconsin’s offense that season and set a freshman rushing record with 2,109 yards on the ground, as well as the freshman record for scrimmage yards (2,242 yards).

In December 1996, the Badgers were matched up with Utah in the Copper Bowl, where Wisconsin won handily, 38-10, behind an otherworldly showing by Dayne.

The true freshman carried the ball 30 times for 246 yards and three touchdowns, which earned him offensive MVP honors. 

He would later run for another 246 yards in the 1999 Rose Bowl and 200 in the 2000 Rose Bowl. His 7,215 career rushing yards, including bowl games, is the most in FBS history.