This is one slick wrinkle that college football has added this
season. Already lacking a definitive means to select its
national champion and mired in a partisan poll system with more
holes than Waterworld, the keepers of the game have changed the
objective. Mere winning is no longer enough. Points are the
point. If four touchdowns is good, six touchdowns is better,
and eight touchdowns is ecstasy. It's brilliant. The boys at
Major League Baseball, those playoff innovators, must be kicking
themselves: Why didn't we think of this?
The place to best study this phenomenon is State College, Pa.,
where last Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium quiet moments
were filled with announcements from the public-address system.
"Scores from other games...Nebraska 50, Michigan State 10,"
the voice would boom. Meanwhile, on the field, the Nittany
Lions were winning a fierce and dramatic struggle, 24-23, over
three-touchdown underdog Texas Tech.
There would be many more big scores to come. Florida State would
get 45 points against Clemson, Florida 42 against Kentucky,
USC 45 against San Jose State, and this weekend's point-scoring
champion, Auburn, 76 against Tennessee-Chattanooga. In the
season's first two weeks Nebraska has scored 114 points. And the
Nittany Lions, who dropped from No. 4 to No. 7 in the polls as a
result of their narrow victory over the Red Raiders, have seen
this movie before. A year ago.
A short history lesson is in order. This recent flurry of
interest in victory margins was spawned last Nov. 5 in the heart
of a ferocious battle for No. 1 between Penn State and Nebraska,
each of whom entered that day atop a poll and seemed destined to
share the national title. The Nittany Lions led the USA
Today/CNN coaches' poll, and the Cornhuskers were best in the
Associated Press writers' poll. But that afternoon at Indiana,
Penn State held a 35-14 lead with a few minutes to play when
Lion coach Joe Paterno substituted freely. "We used guys who
hadn't even practiced," he would say later. The Hoosiers scored
twice, including a 40-yard TD pass and two-point conversion at
the end of the game, creating a deceptively close 35-29 final.
One day later the Nittany Lions fell from their No. 1 ranking in
the USA Today/CNN poll. The apparently close win over Indiana
effectively killed Penn State's shot at any part of a national
title since, as champions of the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions were
obliged to meet the Pac-10 winner in the Rose Bowl. That
precluded a Nebraska-Penn State matchup in another bowl.
That weekend's events created a new dictum for coaches gunning
for a high ranking in the polls: Crush the opposition. Dumb down
the process for the voters. "It's a bad incentive, but those
are the facts," says Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel, whose
Buffaloes have scored 85 points in two games. Florida State's
Bobby Bowden rushed to the head of the pack on this front by
using first-team quarterback Danny Kanell to throw the final
touchdown pass in the Seminoles' 70-26 victory over Duke during
the opening week of the season and admitting afterward that he
did so in part to protect Florida State's No. 1 ranking.
"Ours is the only sport I know of where people vote to determine
a national champion," says Florida coach Steve Spurrier, whose
No. 4 Gators have 87 points in two weeks. Spurrier also concedes
that poll rankings could influence coaches to tack on a couple
of scores in a blowout. "I think it might," he says.
The new bowl alliance will serve to reinforce the tendency to
run up the score. In effect, it will place the six top-ranked
teams, excluding the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions, in three
bowls. This season No. 1 and No. 2 will meet in the Fiesta Bowl
on Jan. 2. The difference in one ranking spot could be several
hundred thousand dollars and a big boost in a school's recruiting.
At the center of this tempest are Nebraska and Penn State. The
efficient Cornhuskers have left nothing to chance by turning
solid victories into romps this season. They seem likely to
continue doing just that, despite the dismissal of star running
back Lawrence Phillips from the team for allegedly assaulting
his ex-girlfriend early Sunday morning and the arrest on
Saturday morning of Phillips's backup, Damon Benning, on similar
charges involving a 19-year-old woman. And the Nittany Lions,
who struggled early against Texas Tech but have the makings of a
powerhouse, are asking for leniency from those who do the ranking.
Despite the loss of three players who were picked in the top
nine in the NFL draft, Penn State this year figured to match the
stirring offensive production of 1994, when the Lions, led by
Ki-Jana Carter, Kerry Collins and Kyle Brady, averaged 47.8
points and more than 520 yards a game. Four offensive line
starters were back, along with both wideouts and a fourth-year
junior with experience at quarterback, Wally Richardson. Yet in
the week leading to the opener against Texas Tech, Paterno
warned, "We're not very good," and it seemed like funny stuff.
JoePa doing poor mouth. Cue the laugh track.
Turned out he had a point. "Ki-Jana was the best running back in
college football in the last 20 years," said Paterno, which was
hyperbolic but underscored the difficulty Paterno has had in
replacing him. Collins was sacked five times last year; on
Saturday, Richardson was sacked three times by a Red Raider
defense that blitzed on virtually every down. Richardson, who
was making his first start in three years, had to shake off a
major case of nerves. "He was a little tight in the first
quarter," said Nittany Lion senior guard Marco Rivera. "Make
that the first half."
Moreover, Penn State's preseason had been disastrous. The
Nittany Lions lost 6'7", 320-pound sophomore defensive tackle
Floyd Wedderburn to a knee injury, and senior defensive tackle
Eric Clair was suspended for two games as punishment for a
summer DUI arrest. In addition, running back Stephen Pitts, who
would have spelled Mike Archie, Carter's replacement, was
sidelined indefinitely with a stress fracture of his right foot.
To make matters worse, the third-string tailback, sophomore
Ambrose Fletcher, was suspended from games while awaiting a
Sept. 18 trial on charges of larceny by extortion and possession
of a weapon in a vehicle near his hometown of New London, Conn.
Saturday's escape was facilitated in large part by senior
wideout Bobby Engram, whose connection to 1994 is deeper than
most of his teammates'. Engram roomed with Carter last year and
dined on weekends with the Carter clan. He decided at the last
moment to eschew the NFL draft, where he would have been a
certain first-round pick, to return to Penn State for his senior
year. "Absolutely, to win a national championship, the one we
should have won last year," says Engram. He is Penn State's
offensive leader, and his two fumbles in the first half led to
two Texas Tech touchdowns and a 20-7 Red Raider lead at halftime.
In the second half Engram caught seven passes for 106 yards--"He
literally wanted to get us back in the game by himself, and he
darn near did," Paterno said after the Lions escaped with the
win--and positioned Penn State for its third score, early in the
fourth quarter, with a remarkable one-foot tap-down sideline
catch at the Texas Tech three. After the Red Raiders' Tony
Rogers kicked a 42-yard field goal to put Tech up 23-21 with
6:39 left, Engram caught three passes from Richardson, who
completed his last 10 throws, to help set up Brett Conway's
game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining. The
impression left by these heroics was of a good team getting
better as the game progressed. "I wanted to touch the ball and
make big plays," Engram said. "Champions find a way to win,
right? That's what we did."
Nebraska lost four members of the brilliant offensive line that
led the way to the national title. The Cornhuskers plugged those
spots--and how: In its season opener Nebraska ripped Oklahoma
State for 671 yards and then blasted for another 666 against
Quarterback Tommie Frazier, who might have won the Heisman
Trophy last year had he not missed eight games because of blood
clots in his right leg, has returned a step sharper. When he
suffered a deep thigh bruise in the second quarter of the win
over Michigan State, Brook Berringer took over, as he did last
year when Frazier was injured, and the Cornhusker machine kept
humming. There is clearly tension between Frazier and Berringer,
but its effect on the Nebraska operation is negligible.
Much the same can be said for the other controversies that have
dogged the Cornhuskers throughout the early season. Even before
Phillips was charged with misdemeanor assault and thrown off the
team by coach Tom Osborne on Sunday, the NCAA was investigating
the details of an auto lease arranged for him by Tina
McElhannon, the owner of a West Covina, Calif., group home where
Phillips lived in high school. The suspicion is that an agent
may have helped finance the deal.
Last week Osborne also banned school newspaper reporters from
practice for two days after the paper ran negative cartoons of
Phillips and junior wingback Riley Washington. Washington is
practicing but not playing while awaiting trial on a charge of
attempted second-degree murder resulting from an Aug. 2 shooting
What is impressive is that the Cornhuskers can lose Frazier and
roll. They have lost Phillips and probably will roll. And after
the arrests last weekend--Benning vehemently denied the
allegations and Osborne kept him on the team--the Huskers will be
beset by questions about the integrity of their program, and
still they're likely to roll.
It was before Michigan State was crushed that Spartan coach Nick
Saban called Nebraska "a program that's hitting on every
cylinder." After the loss a chalkboard in the Michigan State
locker room still bore the wishful pregame prediction: SEE THE
BALL. M.S.U. 22, NEBRASKA 21.
Not even close. With Nebraska, it seldom is.
Bobby Engram sat on a training table in the belly of Beaver
Stadium, his arms bruised from the chopping hits that helped
cause his fumbles. He is of a new breed, a college football
player seasoned not only by play but also by politics. There was
a glow about him that he didn't expect to last the weekend.
"That was a good win; their defense brought the house against us
on every down," he said. But Florida State got 45 points, Auburn
76. Nebraska--Nebraska, again--got 50.
"I'll read the polls," Engram said. "And we'll drop. And then
I'll think, Here we go again."
"We're not very good."