A THIRD-STRING QUARTERBACK SAVES FLORIDA RICE OVERRUNS NEW MEXICO WALK-ONS STEP UP PENN STATE STEPS DOWN

October 27, 1997

SALVATION ARM

Anyone who doubted that football is religion in the SEC had his
faith restored last Saturday at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium,
where Florida beat the Tigers 24-10. Not because, as the
Reverend Steve Spurrier is wont to say, God smiled upon the
Gators. (Although on a weekend when Louisiana State and Michigan
State lost and Penn State lost respect, Florida not only
survived against previously unbeaten Auburn but also climbed
back into the national championship race.) No, the theme was
redemption. Florida yearned for it after a 28-21 loss at LSU and
received it thanks to a thick-bodied former walk-on quarterback
with a biblical first name, Noah Brindise.

For most of his 3 1/2 years at Florida, Brindise's chief duty
was to say, "Way to go, Danny." But after first-year starter
Doug Johnson was suspended before the Auburn game for violating
curfew, and his replacement, freshman Jesse Palmer, was
overwhelmed in his first college start, Brindise stepped in
early in the third quarter and performed with Wuerffelesque
calm. He directed a 97-yard touchdown drive that put Florida
ahead 17-10, and the Gators never let Auburn back into the game.

With his hint of a double chin and the appearance of a guy
leading the Phi Delts to the intramural championship, the 6'3",
222-pound Brindise doesn't look like a redeemer. The son of a
Fort Myers, Fla., high school teacher, Brindise began his
college career at Division II Wingate (N.C.) University--the
only school that offered him a full ride. He lasted one redshirt
season before leaving.

Brindise had lost a preseason battle with Johnson for the
starting job, and after Johnson's suspension Spurrier passed him
over in favor of Palmer because the freshman has a better arm
and more potential. But Florida failed to make a first down on
its final three possessions of the first half and went into
intermission tied 10-10. After Palmer threw his second
interception on the Gators' second play of the third quarter,
Spurrier turned to Brindise. "I was the last one left," Brindise
said afterward, with a smile.

The situation couldn't have been more perilous for him. Brindise
had never played in a game with the first team, much less taken
over with a tie score in front of 85,244 predominantly hostile
fans. What's more, Auburn punter Jaret Holmes's kick had just
died at the Florida three. But Brindise was unfazed. In 14 plays
he drove the Gators the length of the field, twice converting on
third-and-10 with pinpoint passes to Travis McGriff. His 10-yard
touchdown throw to Jacquez Green gave Florida the lead for good.

"I knew Coach Spurrier had confidence in me," Brindise said
afterward. "I don't have the strongest arm around, but I made
the reads and handed the ball off to Fred Taylor. That wasn't
that hard to do."

The drive won Brindise the right to play the rest of the
game--he finished with five completions in 11 attempts for 69
yards--but no more. Spurrier declined to name Johnson as the
starter against Georgia in the Gators' next game, on Nov. 1, but
Brindise didn't. "Everybody knows Doug is the best quarterback,"
he said.

GROUND RICE

New Mexico coach Dennis Franchione had the 6-0 team, the home
field advantage and the hot quarterback, Graham Leigh, heading
into last Saturday's WAC showdown against Rice in Albuquerque.
But after studying videotape of the Owls' wishbone attack early
last week, Franchione rode to the set of his weekly TV show, sat
down in his chair and bluntly told his listeners that he'd just
seen "a horror show." His fears were confirmed when Rice blazed
to a 21-0 lead just 9 1/2 minutes into a game that the Owls went
on to win 35-23.

"People are always coming up to me and saying, 'Y'all don't pass
the ball enough,'" says Chad Nelson, Rice's senior quarterback.
"I just tell them, 'Why bother?'" He has a point. Rice's three
primary ballcarriers--Nelson (109 yards against New Mexico),
speed-burner tailback Michael Perry (133 and two TDs) and
bruising fullback Benji Wood (68 and two TDs)--did nothing to
hurt their chances of becoming the first backfield to boast
three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.

In an era when most coaches are wooing players with promises of
pro-style offenses and four-receiver sets, Rice's Ken Hatfield
arrived in Houston four years ago, took a hard look at what he
had to work with--middling facilities, rigorous academic
standards, a forbidding history of two or fewer wins in 11 of
the previous 20 seasons, the smallest student body in Division
I-A (2,600) and an inability to recruit the Peyton Mannings of
the world--and reverted to the formula he used at Air Force from
1978 to '83. He beat the bushes for smallish offensive linemen
who can pull and run all night, and he installed a wishbone
attack that starts and ends with a shrewd quarterback like
Nelson, a 5'11" daredevil from Lewisville, Texas, whose high
school experience in an option system prepared him well for his
role at Rice. "I once went four games in high school without
attempting a pass," Nelson proudly says.

He didn't complete his one official attempt against the Lobos,
and the Owls finished the game with zero passing yards. But as
Nelson says, why bother? Rice had 384 yards on the ground
against New Mexico to remain the No. 2 rushing offense in the
nation.

Like the Lobos, the 5-2 Owls are seeking a bowl berth for the
first time since 1961. The toughest part of the schedule is
behind Rice, and the rest of the WAC is still grasping for an
antidote to its wishbone. Rather than craving to be something
they're not, Owls players are content to stick to what they're
good at--nothing less, nothing more.

"Quarterbacks like Brett Favre or John Elway always say they
know a pass is perfect the moment it leaves their hands," Nelson
says. "That's the way I feel when I make the perfect pitch to
Michael or Benji or one of our other backs. The moment it leaves
my hand, I know when we're going to break one. Sometimes it
feels like this offense can't be stopped." --JOHNETTE HOWARD

A LION-SIZED LETDOWN

The number of unbeaten teams shrank from 13 to eight when Air
Force, Auburn, Michigan State, New Mexico and Texas A&M lost
last Saturday. However, the national-title contender with the
most questions to answer is undefeated Penn State. Though the
Nittany Lions scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to scratch
out a 16-15 victory over Minnesota, their offense has suddenly
become shaky.

Fullback Aaron Harris suffered an apparent season-ending knee
injury in the second quarter. Harris, who rushed for 96 yards
and a touchdown in the 31-27 defeat of Ohio State the week
before, provided tailbacklike speed as a complement to the
running of Curtis Enis. "Harris is a big, big loss," Penn State
coach Joe Paterno says. "We're losing a quality back."

Quarterback Mike McQueary endured his second straight mediocre
game, completing six of 16 passes and committing three
turnovers. Some of McQueary's shortcomings may have been the
result of a hard tackle in the first period. After the game he
said he had had a severe headache and trouble seeing out of his
right eye during the last three quarters, yet he continued to
play, which shows that his decision-making, supposedly his
strong suit, may not be so strong after all.

The Nittany Lions are idle this week, which should help new
fullback Anthony Cleary adjust and give McQueary time to clear
his head. But Penn State's vulnerability has made it
increasingly likely that the Orange Bowl, not the Rose Bowl,
will produce this year's national champion. Nebraska replaced
Penn State atop both polls. Who in the weak Big 12 can beat the
Huskers?

EXTRA POINTS

Connecticut will accept the Big East's invitation to move up to
Division I-A in football, provided the state comes up with $106
million to build a stadium, a training facility and indoor and
outdoor practice fields. Governor John Rowland plans to call a
special session of the legislature next month to figure out
where the money will come from.... Southern Cal coach John
Robinson is two years removed from a Rose Bowl victory, and
Texas coach John Mackovic led the Longhorns to Alliance bowl
trips after the 1995 and '96 seasons, but both may soon be out
of work. While the Trojans (3-3) rallied around Robinson and
dedicated their 20-17 victory over Notre Dame to him, the
Longhorns (3-3) are a mess. Their defense, which was allowing
35.4 points per game before last Saturday, gave up more than
that in a 37-29 loss to Missouri. Mackovic hasn't converted any
of the success of the last few seasons into a reserve of
goodwill at Texas.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Brindise played the unlikely hero against Auburn, directing a 97-yard drive that put Florida up for good. [Noah Brindise in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Makovicka walked on at Nebraska and bulled his way into the lineup. [Joel Makovicka in game] COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Chris Snyder (91) and Penn State got a gift when Minnesota's Thomas Hamner fumbled a fourth-quarter pitch.

OUR 1997 ALL-WALK-ON TEAM

Even highly ranked teams have walk-on successes: No. 1 Nebraska
and No. 3 Florida State start six walk-ons between them. Here's
SI's lineup of players who beat the odds to earn playing time
and--in most cases--a scholarship.

Pos. Player, School Skinny

OFFENSE

OL Matt Hoskinson, Nebraska Stalwart at center and guard
for top rushing team

OL Brenon Meadows, Alabama Ex-Louisville player starts at
right guard

OL Brandon Burlsworth, Two-year starter turned down
Arkansas several I-AA rides

OL Bull Heffernan, Utah Fiery 26-year-old long snapper
not on scholarship

OL Truett Novosad, Houston Has made seven starts over last
two seasons

TE Brad Rainko, Two touchdown receptions for
Michigan State 5-1 Spartans

WR Jerome Pathon, Washington Sixth in the nation with
116.5 yards per game

WR Bryan Owen, Virginia Walk-on placekicker now starts
at wideout

QB Doug Johnson, Florida Pro baseball is paying his way

RB Joel Makovicka, Nebraska 7.2 yards per rush; no carries
for minus yardage

RB Robert Reed, Mississippi Averaging 15.2 yards per
reception

DEFENSE

DL Andre Wadsworth, Nation's best pass rusher
Florida State

DL John Engelberger, Publicity-shy Hokie has 28
Virginia Tech tackles, five for loss

DL Bamidele Ali, Kentucky Has seven sacks for 62 yards

DL Selvesta Miller, Starter has eight pressures and
South Carolina four sacks

LB Steve Tate, Virginia Tech Engineering student building
All-Big East season

LB Eric Mayes, Michigan Co-captain blew out knee on
Oct. 4 against Indiana

LB Brian Shaw, Nebraska Has 15 tackles, four for losses

DB Shevin Smith, Four career interceptions vs.
Florida State Miami and Florida

DB Ryan Black, Colorado Has forced two fumbles and made
36 tackles

DB Ryan Sutter, Colorado Made 28 tackles vs. Michigan on
Sept. 13

DB Marcus Spencer, Alabama Tide starter was turned down at
I-AA Alabama State
[BOX]

WINNERS

1. MARK CUSANO For the second straight year the Southern Cal
linebacker, who was shunned by Notre Dame recruiters as a
schoolboy, made the key defensive play to beat the Irish. His
interception set up Adam Abrams's game-winning field goal.

2. OLE MISS The Rebels defeated a ranked LSU team for only the
second time in 26 years, and in the process they resurrected one
of the best rivalries in the SEC.

3. FLORIDA STATE'S DEFENSE In their second shutout in three
games, the Seminoles didn't allow Georgia Tech past Florida
State's 39-yard line.

& LOSERS

1. THE LIBERTY BOWL The Big East most likely won't qualify a
fourth team for a bowl, so the organizers hoped to get a 7-5 or
even a 6-6 Notre Dame. Don't hold your breath. The Irish fell to
2-5.

2. PHIL DAWSON Texas's All-America kicker, reportedly hobbled by
hip, hamstring and groin injuries, missed two field goals and
two extra points as the hapless Longhorns lost--by two field
goals and two extra points--to Missouri.

3. FLORIDA STATE'S OFFENSE The Seminoles, who led 31-zip, threw
four passes on a late drive and got a rub-it-in touchdown. Hey,
it's not as if the running game couldn't use some work.

--I.M.

LOOKING AHEAD

MICHIGAN (6-0) AT MICHIGAN STATE (5-1)
With a Rose Bowl berth conceivably on the line, this rivalry
finally means something outside the state of Michigan--even
though Northwestern made the Spartans pay last Saturday for
looking ahead to the Wolverines. Michigan is ranked sixth in the
nation against the rush. So, Michigan State tailback Sedrick
Irvin, meet the line of scrimmage. You don't figure to get very
far past it. The Wolverines, who haven't given up a point in the
fourth quarter, should finish the afternoon still on track for a
battle of unbeatens with Penn State on Nov. 8.

TULANE (4-2) AT SOUTHERN MISS (4-2)
The winner takes a large step toward the Conference USA title.
With first-year coach Tommy Bowden applying the family formula,
the Green Wave has scored at least 30 points in its four
victories. But the Golden Eagles lead the conference in total
defense thanks to linebacker Marchant Kenney and his 12.3
tackles a game. That defense and Southern Miss's home field
advantage should be too much for Tulane.

NEBRASKA (6-0) AT KANSAS (4-3)
A victory would be the Cornhuskers' 35th in a row over a
conference opponent in the regular season and would bring
Nebraska within one win of clinching a return to the Big 12
championship game. Can you feel the tension? Not exactly. The
Jayhawks will be overmatched against the Huskers, who have
allowed 99 points--just 40 by the first-team defense. The
rallying cry of the generally mediocre Big 12: Thank god for the
(even worse) Big East, which leads us to....

VIRGINIA TECH (5-1) AT WEST VIRGINIA (5-1)
The two most physical teams in the conference were idle last
week, so get ready for some heavy hitting. Mountaineers
sophomore Amos Zereoue has rushed for 100 yards or more 10 times
in his career, and West Virginia has won every one of those
games. But the Hokies have allowed only one 100-yard performance
this season and bring an eight-game Big East winning streak to
Morgantown. The edge goes to the nastiest, noisiest crowd in the
league.

--I.M.

Check out more college football news from Ivan Maisel at
www.cnnsi.com

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