ALVA, Okla. — Jacob Peyton has taken hundreds of carries as one of Northwestern Oklahoma State's leading running backs. But he perks up when talking about one in particular.
“It was a good one,” the redshirt senior said.
In the second week of the 2016 season, a then-redshirt freshman took the field wearing a tightly knitted Northwestern game jersey and exhilarated nerves. Peyton was excited, to say the least. The adrenaline of his first college game coursed through his body that would eventually fuel a run that would become the first step of his four-year career at Northwestern.
After the snap, Peyton made it 5 yards into an inside zone run before shaking off his first defender. A few yards later, he shed a few more, ultimately ending his gallop with a 30-yard gain.
“That was big,” Northwestern head coach Matt Walter said. “It was a really good run.”
Later in the year against Arkansas Tech, former Ranger quarterback Reid Miller found Peyton on a “scramble” route and threw the ball up to him.
“And they had this transfer Division I linebacker trying to cover him,” Walter said of the play. “He (Peyton) jumps over the guy and makes the catch — like a Randy Moss-type of catch. And you’re just like, ‘Holy crap.’”
Since his first carry, Peyton gradually solidified himself as a trustworthy asset in Northwestern’s offense the last four seasons. Now, in his final year as a Ranger, Peyton is working not only to bring Northwestern its first winning season since he’s been with the program, but to etch his name in the history books as the program’s career rushing leader.
The man who now leads Northwestern’s football program is the same man who holds the all-time rushing record: Matt Walter.
Walter was a key piece of the Rangers offense in the late-1990s and early-2000s and was a lynchpin of the 1999 National Championship team. Walter was named MVP of Northwestern’s 36-24 win over Georgetown (Ky.).
As the head coach of his alma mater, Walter said it doesn’t feel surreal for him to be coaching on the sidelines of the very field he once played on. But he knows he will experience a moment of surrealness soon.
“When he (Peyton) breaks that record,” Walter said. “I will have that moment.”
Two decades later, Walter still remembers when he broke the record himself.
“Like it happened yesterday,” he said. “I knew the exact carry when it happened … They stopped the game.”
For Walter, it happened in the third round of the NAIA playoffs during the national title season. Northwestern, facing the University of Mary (N.D.), was in full command of the game, one it would win 21-6.
When he broke the nearly 40-year record, Walter handed the ball to the backup quarterback to run it up to his father in the stands. There was no time to stop the game and celebrate.
“Oh, that’s pretty cool,” Walter said at the time when P.A. it was announced he broke the record. But then he and the Rangers resumed the drive. The weight of his accomplishment didn’t hit Walter until after the game during a presentation, when the previous record-holder, Northwestern hall of famer Stewart Arthurs, greeted him.
A greater impact
Every week, Peyton inches closer to Walter's 2,546-yard career mark. Last week against Arkansas-Monticello (2-2), Peyton led Northwestern (2-3) by scoring a rushing touchdown to help the Rangers post a 28-0 shutout victory. The senior redshirt ended his day against UAM with 85 rushing yards.
While limited to 28 yards in Northwestern's 47-7 loss on Saturday at Henderson State, Peyton is less than 400 yards away from the record.
But who’s counting?
“I don’t really ever think about it,” he said.
Friends, family, and anyone, in general, have asked him about the record. Fretting over the number isn’t going to make it any more reachable, something Peyton surely knows.
“The way I look at it, the number is not a not a big number,” he said. “It’s not even out of reach by any means at all, If we just continue to play the way that we’re playing, especially after the performance we had (against Arkansas-Monticello).”
At his current rate of around 68 yards per game, Peyton could break the record in the next five games.
“If we keep playing on that level,” he continued. “I’m not worried about reaching that goal at all. It’s going to happen. That’s not something I’m going to try and do anything above and beyond what my job is for the team to try and reach it.”
Even if he doesn’t set a new record, Peyton’s legacy with the Northwestern program will be felt long after he’s left Alva. Peyton was one of the first players to play under Walter when he took over the program in 2015, helping return Northwestern to its winning ways.
“He’s been a major contributor to the foundation of what we’re producing and putting on the field,” Walter said. “Since we started … we left a lot of wins out there. But he’s been a huge part of the culture and what we do here. I’m forever grateful for that.”