Three years ago Donovan McNabb brought to the Syracuse campus
all the wisdom and maturity of his 17 years, which is to say he
viewed his collegiate career as an extension of his carefree
Chicago childhood. During football season McNabb played
quarterback, as he had done at Mount Carmel High. During
basketball season he played guard. The rest of the time he just
played. "Donovan used to be a court jester," Syracuse
quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers says. "He was happy-go-lucky,
zip-a-dee-doo-dah, bumping bellies with the offensive linemen.
Now he has work to do. Business is business."
And business is good, judging from the performance McNabb gave
on Sunday in the Kickoff Classic, at Giants Stadium in East
Rutherford, N.J. The fourth-year junior completed 11 of 14
passes for 211 yards and one touchdown and ran five times for 27
yards and another score as Syracuse embarrassed Wisconsin 34-0.
What had been billed as a showcase of two top contenders for the
Heisman Trophy came up one short. Wisconsin sophomore tailback
Ron Dayne, who rushed for 1,863 yards last fall, struggled
behind a line so young that Badgers offensive coordinator Brad
Childress joked last week that he would have to remind the three
redshirt freshman starters not to stand behind the bench with
the scrubs. He might try reminding them not to stand around at
the line of scrimmage. Dayne rushed for 46 yards on 13 carries
before the recurrence of a stinger in his right shoulder forced
him to sit out much of the second half.
Dayne began the day as the most highly touted rusher in Division
I-A and ended it as the third-best ground gainer on the field.
Syracuse junior fullback Rob Konrad bulled for 76 yards and a
touchdown on only eight carries, while junior tailback Kyle
McIntosh skittered for 66 yards on 11 carries. But the balance
of the Syracuse offense, which finished with 227 yards on the
ground and 243 passing, seemed to emanate from McNabb. "When you
see someone as confident as Donovan is and watch the way he
carries himself," McIntosh says, "it really calms the whole team
Heisman talk in August is like anything available at the
concession stand--fun to chew on but without real substance.
That said, McNabb's performance not only was good, it was good
for you, especially if you're a long-suffering fan of Syracuse
football. McNabb showed that he is ready to lead his teammates
to greatness if they would finally like to go there. Or, as he
said to his classmates last January, "I want better than 9-3,"
which is where the Orangemen finished last season after getting
off to a dismal 0-2 start.
August 31, 1997
McNabb proved last spring how badly he wants to win by
announcing that he no longer would play basketball for coach Jim
Boeheim. Though McNabb never played a lot of minutes for
Syracuse, he wasn't given a uniform merely to fulfill a
recruiting promise made by football coach Paul Pasqualoni. Last
Feb. 8 McNabb came off the bench to score 10 points and grab six
rebounds to help the Orangemen to a 77-74 win over archrival
But after long talks with his father, Samuel, and with Rogers,
McNabb decided to become a full-time football player. "I don't
know if it paid off," McNabb says. "My thing right now is
football and trying to make a future."
He spent his summer alternating between the film room and the
weight room, where he added 30 pounds to his bench press. He
also improved his quickness and his speed (he now runs the 40 in
4.52) and let his teammates know how serious he had become about
football. "If somebody's loafing, he gets on their butt," center
Cory Bowen says. "He'll get in their face and say, 'Let's pick
it up.' Last year he felt he was just one of the younger guys.
Now he feels it's his team."
McNabb, still two months shy of 21, agrees. "I am more
confident," he says. "I'm older. I'm more mature. It's my third
year. I know what I need to do, and I know what the guys around
me need to do." In fact, Rogers worried before Sunday's game
that McNabb was being too quiet. But what the coach feared was a
case of nerves proved to be determination. McNabb removed all
doubt when he stood in the pocket, pumped left, flushed into the
right flat and found senior wideout Darryl Daniel alone on the
right sideline for 39 yards in the second quarter. And when he
ran the option for a 21-yard score behind Konrad. And once again
when he threw a 25-yard sideline bullet to sophomore wideout
Quinton Spotwood in the third quarter.
The offense isn't all there is to like about this Syracuse team.
Senior strong safety Tebucky Jones, a tailback the past three
years, had five tackles and showed he still has a nose for the
ball. "It feels real good to hit people instead of being a
target," Jones said. "When a running back makes a cut, I know
where he is going." The Syracuse defense, led by fifth-year
linebacker Antwaune Ponds, allowed only three rushing first
downs and 60 yards on the ground to a Wisconsin team that has
had four backs gain 1,000 yards in the past four seasons.
The most appealing thing about the Orangemen was that they
played well from the start. It had been four years since
Syracuse scored a touchdown in the first half of its opener. The
kickoff return team rectified that in 16 seconds, though not
without a flashback to the Orangemen's old ways. Senior Jim
Turner, one of two deep men, yelled, "Me! Me! Me!" as the ball
came toward him. Junior Kevin Johnson got there first. "I'm the
call man. He didn't hear me," Turner said later with a chuckle.
"If he had dropped it, it would have been a big deal." As
Johnson caught the ball, Turner bumped into him, which was as
close as anyone came to making a tackle. Johnson weaved to the
left sideline and went 89 yards for the touchdown.
As Johnson and his teammates celebrated in one end zone, behind
the other a fan held up a sign that read JUST BEAT MIAMI.
Syracuse hasn't done that in its last six attempts, an
indication of the team's inability to measure up to its dreams.
The sign is an indication of the fans' reluctance to believe in
those dreams. Before Sunday, there had been no preseason buzz
about Syracuse contending for the national championship. Before
Sunday, only 36,000 tickets had been sold for the Orangemen's
home opener, this Saturday against North Carolina State. Upstate
New Yorkers are loath to give up their summer weekends to go
into the 50,000-seat Carrier Dome, which, never mind its name,
is not air-conditioned. And country music superstar Vince Gill
is the headliner on Saturday night at the New York State Fair, a
few miles from campus.
Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel suspects that the
Orangemen's play against Wisconsin might help him sell the
14,000 seats that remain. "If this doesn't have an effect," he
said, "I don't know what else we can do."