IOWA CITY, Iowa _ Albert Young ran across the Kinnick Stadium turf wincing from each hit. Eventually, he turned to one of the Iowa students slapping him on the shoulder pads and said, "Please stop."
After carrying the team on his shoulders and the ball 34 times for 179 yards on Saturday, Iowa's heart and soul needed a whirlpool bath instead of pats on the back. But hey, that was the price of fame.
Plenty of stars and stories emerged from an exciting 34-27, double-overtime victory against Michigan State at Kinnick. None of them matched the performance delivered by the tough, gutsy, talented tailback from the great state of New Jersey.
"He decided that he was going to take the game over, and that's what he did," Iowa Quarterback Jake Christensen said. "He's the guy that we all follow. At halftime he said "just follow me. We have to run the ball." That's what we did."
Had the Hawkeyes lost on Saturday, they would have needed three wins in their last three games to become bowl eligible. That herculean task would have begun at Northwestern next week with an Iowa team on a two-game losing streak having dropped six of its last seven. The margin for error would have been erased.
Iowa came into the week planning on rushing the ball. Too many times this season, a listless offense went down without throwing its best punch – Young and fellow senior running back Damian Sims, who 35 yards on three carries before leaving at halftime with a foot injury.
It looked in the first half like the Iowa offense would wilt in the fall air as it had so many times this year. The Hawkeyes managed just one yard in the first quarter and 71 at halftime. Four of their five first-half possessions ended in three-and-outs and they only ran 20 plays total in the opening 30 minutes.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz unloaded on the officials right before halftime and was given credited by fans, media and his players for lighting a fire under his team. It's probably true, but it wouldn't have mattered had Young not emptied his tank. The senior toted the ball 26 times after the intermission.
"He played like a senior should," Iowa center Rafael Eubanks said. "He has this entire season. He's run the ball real hard. You can just see him every week as it keeps getting closer to the end, he just keeps stepping it up. You don't think that he can, but he does."
This hasn't been a dream season for Young. Heck, the last two years haven't been a walk in the park. After leading the Big Ten in rushing as a sophomore, he suffered through an injury-plagued 2006 and the growing pains of a green offense this season.
Every time someone has stuck a microphone in front of his face this season, invariable he's asked if he's frustrated. To his credit, he's kept the focus on the team and absorbed every inquiry like a man.
Young has always been a fierce competitor. Make no mistake, this season has been a continuous punch in his gut. When he's spoken with his good friend Mike Hart of Michigan, he has to have been envious of how the Wolverines have been riding their horse while Iowa's barely has gotten out of the gates many weeks.
"Obviously he was frustrated, but you couldn't tell," Eubanks said. "You have to know him to know that he's probably frustrated just because he wants his team to do well. He's kept a great attitude."
Young carried the ball seven times last week in a 31-6 loss at Purdue. He sat out the second half with an injury, but could have gone back in if the game was closer.
Saturday, he ran the ball six times on an eight-play, 75-yard scoring march that tied the game at 17-17. He finished it off with a 2-yard touchdown, his second of the third quarter. Iowa hadn't scored by rush in Big Ten play prior to that.
The offensive line looked as good as it had all year in the second half. Michigan State entered the game ranked fourth in the conference at stopping the run (117.4 YPG). The Hawkeyes rolled up 230 on Saturday.
Young credited that group as well as fullback Tom Busch and wide receiver James Cleveland for their blocking. In fact, a couple of the Iowa assistants made sure to congratulate Cleveland as they left the field. He delivered the key block on Young's 26-uard scoring sprint in the third quarter.
All of those parties deserved credit for helping the Iowa offense along after the intermission. However, Young inspired those efforts with his relentless running. He also helped get what had been a pretty quiet crowd into the game.
"I saw him break a tackle on one where he had like an eight-yard gain or so. I'm way over here, and he's breaking free and churning for another seven, eight yards," Right Tackle Seth Olsen said. "That really gets you pumped up. Even if we don't give them a hole and they get only a one- or two-yard gain or a loss, they don't give up. They keep going after the defense."
Young pounded for a key first-down run of five yards when Iowa scored on its first overtime possession. He then carried two consecutive times in double OT for a combined 11 yards and a first down that set his team up at the MSU one. But after the second tote, he removed himself from the game after suffering a stinger. Back-up Jevon Pugh took it in from there.
"I didn't want to take a risk if I wasn't feeling completely good about it," Young said about coming out. "I knew it was a crucial down coming up. We have confidence in Jevon that he could get a yard. The way the O-line was blocking, he pretty much walked in. I gave him one. Congrats."
Young was joking at the end of that statement, but his words explain why he's a leader and a respected member of this team. He could have stayed in the game and tried for the yard and more glory. But he yielded to the true freshmen for the betterment of the team.
"I was just trying to set the tone for the team," Young said about his approach to the second half. "Running backs definitely can set a tone for offenses and the defense. Coach Ferentz told me that. He told me that last year. I definitely embrace that."
Young spoke for a few more minutes that moved towards the door. He was the last one in the interview room as usually is the case.
"I've got to go guys. I have family waiting."
I had to throw a few more at him as he exited.
How do you feel?
"Sore," he said with a smile. "I haven't felt that in a while."
Sore good or bad?
"Oh, sore good," he said with a chuckle as he walks out.
They're a special breed, these guys that run to be popped and dropped only to bounce up and do it over and over. The good ones are even more special. Young is a good one. Finally, he got a chance to show it this year.