Barry Sanders used to spin, sprint and juke like a human video game. So who better to be in the new Heisman Challenge mode of "NCAA Football 13," where you take over the virtual life of a former Heisman winner and try to exceed the stats that made them a legend in order to win a cyber version of the coveted trophy for yourself.
But which school should I make cyber Sanders attend?
That's easy. I sign my letter of intent with Stanford, giving the Cardinal the first father-son backfield with Sanders and Barry Sanders Jr. Funny thing is when you pick Sanders as your player, you're shown a video of him talking about which schools he would like to play for and, what do you know, Stanford is his top choice. He talks about how they're old school in the way they like to run the ball, and he could see himself playing in their offense. And it doesn’t hurt when you can split carries with Junior.
The statistical goals of matching the real Barry are a bit daunting, however. My targets are 2,628 rushing yards, 39 rushing touchdowns, five rushing touchdowns in a single game and 332 rushing yards in a single game. Each goal completed boosts my chance at winning the Heisman. I just hope my Stanford offensive line is up to the challenge.
Game 1 is against San Jose State. Before the game, I'm reminded that, in real life, Sanders returned the first kickoff of his Heisman season for a touchdown; nothing like adding to the pressure. Unfortunately, San Jose State kicks the ball away from Sanders, and the ball is downed in the end zone. I join the huddle and the first play is called for me, Power-O to the right. I bounce the ball outside, and when the corner runs up to challenge, I hit LT to put the game into Reaction Time. This slows the game down, putting your player in the zone and making it easier for you to juke defenders out of their cleats. I jump to the left as the corner whiffs on the dive and spin out of the safety's attempted tackle. By the time I'm run down from behind, I've already gained 59 yards. Not bad for my first play.
Three runs later, I'm in the end zone for the first score of the season. Heisman, here I come.
When playing through the mode, the game is set up similar to Road to Glory, where you play only when you’re in the game. On pass plays, if I'm blocking, I need to block or my quarterback might get smashed. There are plays where I need to run routes out of the backfield. I'm also out there returning punts and kicks, but on defense, I just button through until Stanford gets the ball back, making this a pretty fast mode to play through.
You can watch each play as its simulated if you want, but what do I care, I simply hit X to skip until the next time Sanders is on the field.
The next offensive play is a flanker screen. If you press A while running your route, you can actually call for the ball. I do that, but my quarterback overthrows the pass and it's nearly picked off. I guess next time I won't be so greedy.
Stanford gets back to what it does best, handing the ball to Sanders. A few plays later, I find myself back in the end zone for my second touchdown of the day. I just wish I could play San Jose State every game.
In the second quarter, I get my first shot at a punt return, and I have to say, the Reaction Time really opens things up. You can slow the game down to see where the blockers are setting up, and I was a step away from breaking a big one. Too bad I got tripped up after only five yards.
We get back to running the ball, but just when I start to get cocky, the San Jose State D steps up and starts stuffing me. I lose yards on my next three runs. Then again, that's just like Sanders. He might lose, lose, lose, but you never know when he'll break the next big one.
One thing I like about the mode is that when you're learning your play, you have the option to flip it or change the play (20 plays per game). I noticed my offensive coordinator kept calling the same plays for some reason, so at least it gave me the ability to change things up if I don't agree -- or if I'm trying to pad my stats.
I soon realize that you don't have unlimited Reaction Time. You start out with 15 seconds, and as you use it, time is deducted. You're given bonus time for good plays, and time is added back after you rest. I just wanted to note this, because the first time I was shown the game, they told me the legends would have unlimited Reaction Time. Somewhere along the line, the design must have been tweaked. Fifteen seconds is more than enough, though, as I seem to only use it in small chunks when approaching defenders at high speed.
Stanford starts passing the ball downfield, so I change a bomb to a toss and break one more long run before the half, giving me 205 yards rushing and three touchdowns heading into the locker room. By the start of the third quarter, I break the single game rushing record for Stanford, gaining 228 yards.
Reaction Time plus Sanders equals unstoppable, if you haven't realized. I'm curious to see what happens when I play a better defense.
By the time this game is over, cyber Sanders rushed 37 times for 359 yards and six touchdowns. What's crazy is that is about as good a rushing performance as I could imagine out of a video game, and I barely beat Sanders' single-game yardage mark. I can't even imagine the brilliance it took to do that in real life. Just goes to show how truly amazing Sanders was.
But the virtual announcers in this game didn't even mention what a historic game I just had. All they said was how it shouldn't surprise anybody how Stanford just beat an inferior team. You would think for a special mode such as this that they would actually talk about your player more. They have the rights to use Sanders in the game, so you would think they would actually say his name every once in a while or talk more about his chase for the Heisman. Something. Anything.
After the game, I check the Heisman Watch and I'm in fifth place. Wow, 359 yards and six touchdowns gets you to fifth place? USC's QB is in first, followed by the HB of Wisconsin, the CB of LSU and the QB of Michigan. Each player is given a fictitious name, not just a number, so in my video game world, the QB of USC is named Taurean Thomas. Interesting.
Aside from the Heisman Watch, there is also a Heisman Score where you're awarded points for accomplishing certain milestones. Rush for 20 touchdowns in a season for 150 points, rush for a school-record 28 touchdowns in a season for 250 points and so on.
The next game is against Duke, and once again, Sanders goes nuts thanks to the super slo-mo of Reaction Time.
A fun play sees Sanders as a blocker for his son on a pitch play. I take out the linebacker, and Sanders Jr. gets the touchdown. It doesn't help my stats, but I can take some fatherly pride in that one, even if I'm talking about my video game son.
It's another big game for Sanders as I rush the rock 43 times for 307 yards and four touchdowns. I even get my first reception of the season on a short swing pass, but I have to say, catching the ball is pretty tough from the Heisman cameras. The camera is close up on your player, so you're running the route and the next thing you know, the ball is whizzing your direction and you have to try to catch it before it's too late. I've already taken three to the face and it's only Game 2. I've also fumbled two option pitches. I was in the spot I thought I should be in, but my quarterback missed me both times on the pitch and I had to dive after the ball to save the turnover.
Week 3 is my first big test: a showdown against USC and my biggest challenger to the Heisman, Thomas.
A sweet play on the first drive sees Sanders sweep around the right side. When the safety charges up for the tackle, I hit the hurdle button and Sanders sticks his foot out, making it look like he kung-fu kicks the safety right in the chops. Both players go flying, but it's first down Stanford. Sweet.
It's definitely a lot tougher to run when you go up against the better teams, and I get a lot of two-yard runs in this one. I also almost end up costing my team the win toward the end of the game as Stanford is inside the five with less than two minutes left down 25-21. The computer calls a pass on third-and-goal, but I decide I want the touchdown, so I change the play to a run. Sanders is stuffed for a loss, and I'm starting to feel the heat. USC is ranked No. 1, and I might have just cost my team the game.
On fourth down, the computer calls for another pass, but I decide I'm winning or losing based on Sanders, so I go for the Power-O along the right side. The safety comes in hard, but I'm able to bounce to the sideline and dive for the goal line. Just as I dive, I'm hit hard, but Sanders has just enough air to score the touchdown and give Stanford the 28-25 win.
Sometimes greed will cost you, but in this case, Gordon Gekko is right, greed is good. I get the stats and the win.
After 41 carries, 243 yards and two touchdowns, I’ve moved up to No. 1 on the Heisman Watch. Take that, Taurean!
From there, Sanders' season had plenty of ups and downs, but nothing would compare to the high of the game I had against Washington State where cyber Sanders rushed for five touchdowns … in the first half! By the time the game was over, Sanders boasted Bo Jackson in "Tecmo Bowl"-type stats, smoking State for 501 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.
As great as the performance was -- one of the best games I've ever played in my video game life -- I was still frustrated by how the announcers reacted. They didn't once mention the fact that I just had the greatest statistical game in the history of the sport. Instead, all they could talk about at the end of the game was how surprised they were of the blowout, ending with "sure glad this one's over."
I hate to go on a Miz rant, but really? I had 501 yards rushing and nine touchdowns and you're glad the game is over? I can't believe this is still happening in sports video games in 2012. Can we get a new budget for the audio team, please?
Then again, as much as the announcers fumble, it's two Sanders fumbles late in the season that cost Stanford any shot at No. 1 in the nation. The fumble against Oregon is the one I'll remember the most, as the game was tied 21-21 with just under two minutes on the clock. I score what looks to be the game-winning touchdown on a toss, but there's a flag on the play -- holding. Move back 10 yards to the 22, and the ball goes to Sanders again, this time going left. I dodge the first tackler, but when I try to hurdle over the corner, the safety flies up and smacks me from the side, forcing me to cough up the rock. Oregon ball! Next thing I know, the Ducks drive the length of the field and Stanford blows the game. Ugh.
Barry rushed for 191 yards and three touchdowns in the game, but it's that fumble that will go down in Cardinal history as the play that cost them the season.
Then again, I'm playing a mode that’s based purely on stats, so who cares. (I do, actually, but I’m trying to make myself feel better.) In the end, Sanders goes on to win the Heisman by a landslide, collecting 730 first-place votes, 56 second-place votes and 16 third. Poor Taurean didn’t even end up finishing in second, as he was overtaken by the speedy quarterback from Michigan for second place.
In addition to the Heisman, I find out that Barry won the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Award and the Doak Walker Award. Not bad. Then again, when your final single-season stats include 3,790 yards rushing and 48 touchdowns, what else would you expect?
What's cool is that after you win the Heisman, you unlock your legend for play in Road to Glory mode, enabling you to finish out the rest of his career.
In other words, time to win Barry another Heisman before "Madden 13" comes out in August.
Barry Sanders, who shares the "NCAA 13" cover with Robert Griffin III, spoke to ESPN Playbook in April. Click here to read that interview.