TRUE BLUE GRIT
You can't count on anything in Los Angeles anymore. The
O'Malleys are selling the Dodgers. USC icon John Robinson is
barely hanging on to his job. Now, after a 52-28 pounding of
Washington, UCLA can no longer be called soft. What's next? An
NFL team in town?
Last Saturday the Bruins amassed 565 yards of total offense and
scored more points against the Huskies than any Pac-10 opponent
had in 23 years. In the second half the UCLA defense sacked
Washington quarterback Brock Huard five times and held the
Huskies to minus-34 yards rushing. On both sides of the ball the
Bruins met internationally recognized standards for smashmouth.
Since beginning the season with close losses to Washington State
and Tennessee--both now ranked in the top 11--UCLA has won eight
straight and is No. 7. If Washington, 7-3 and loser of
successive games for the first time in five seasons under coach
Jim Lambright, pulls itself together on Saturday and beats the
Cougars, the Bruins will go to the Rose Bowl, provided they
defeat USC. If Washington State and UCLA both win, however, the
Cougars will get the nod.
"We're proving to a lot of people that we're a physical team,"
says UCLA senior tailback Skip Hicks, whose third four-touchdown
game of the year raised his '97 TD total to a conference-record
24. "That's what they like to see out here. Banging and killing."
Forgive Hicks, a native of Wichita Falls, Texas, for his grim
view of life in Southern California: He and his teammates went
to see L.A. Confidential the night before playing Washington.
The message the Bruins delivered to the Huskies and the rest of
the Pac-10 the following day was anything but off the record, on
the q.t. and very hush-hush: They are the "gutty little Bruins"
no more. That phrase, once a compliment, became a pejorative in
UCLA's final years under coach Terry Donahue. "I was going to
try my damnedest to change that image," says Bob Toledo, who was
promoted from offensive coordinator to replace Donahue after the
Toledo was an assistant at Oregon in the mid-1980s, and he
recalls a time when UCLA came north to play the Ducks. "It was
an overcast day, misting a little bit," Toledo says. "UCLA had
on long sleeves, thermals, turtlenecks. Our kids were laughing."
Last month, on a rainy, 50[degree] day in Eugene, the Bruins
emerged from the locker room in short sleeves; the Ducks wore
thermals. UCLA won 39-31.
Toledo made substantive as well as psychological
changes--including hiring a tough powerlifting Texan named Kevin
Yoxall as Bruins strength and conditioning coach. By the end of
last season UCLA was a hardened team. Against USC in the finale,
the Bruins came from 17 points down in the fourth quarter to tie
the game, before winning in overtime. This season against
Tennessee, UCLA rallied from a 27-6 deficit in the second half
before falling short, 30-24. Though the Bruins dropped to 0-2,
that comeback restored their confidence. The following week they
massacred Texas 66-3, and they haven't slowed down since.
Before last Saturday's game, Washington linebacker Jason Chorak
pointed out that Hicks had rushed for a total of seven yards in
his previous two games against the Huskies. "I don't think he
likes to play physical," Chorak said, chortling. Hicks, though,
would have the last laugh.
The bye week before the Washington game helped the Bruins,
especially Hicks, who has been nagged by a sore left knee. That
wasn't all that bothered him, though. In the 37-34 loss to
Washington State on Aug. 30, he took himself out of the lineup
because of exhaustion after running for 190 yards and four
touchdowns on 27 carries. "I should have been in better shape,"
says Hicks. "I felt I let myself and the team down." With him on
the sideline UCLA failed to score on fourth-and-goal from the
Washington State one in the final minute. That one yard in
August may separate UCLA from the Rose Bowl.
Against the Huskies there would be no running out of gas. Hicks
scored on runs of two, 37 and nine yards and caught a 67-yard
touchdown pass. He picked up 109 of his rushing yards after
halftime and finished with 147 yards rushing and 106
receiving--plus a postgame handshake from Chorak.
Hicks had been raring to go a day early. In a team meeting last
Friday, the usually laid-back Hicks made a speech so fiery that
sophomore defensive end Travor Turner threw up. "Right out there
in the middle of everything," says Toledo, obviously impressed.
After the Bruins' performance against Washington, no one is
questioning whether UCLA has the stomach for big games.
LIFE AFTER DEATH
In the year 9 A.D. (After Death), football at Southern Methodist
is once again alive and well. Last Saturday, Tulsa botched an
extra-point attempt with 18 seconds left, preserving a 42-41
Mustangs win and assuring SMU of its first .500-plus season
since the NCAA imposed the death penalty on the team after the
1986 season. Although NCAA sanctions called for the program to
be shut down for one year, the violations by boosters were so
widespread that Southern Methodist voluntarily suspended the
program for a second year. The Mustangs returned to action in
'89, went 2-9 that year and didn't finish better than 5-6 in any
of the ensuing seven seasons. Now SMU is 6-4, including 5-2 in
the WAC Mountain Division. The Mustangs will reach the WAC
championship game if they beat Texas Christian on Thursday night
and co-division leader New Mexico loses to Tulsa on Saturday.
First-year coach Mike Cavan, who played quarterback at Georgia
from 1968 to '70, tossed out the Mustangs' inconsistent
run-and-shoot offense to better abide by the tenets of football
as he learned them in the SEC. Those tenets, according to Cavan,
are to "play solid defense, establish a running game, have good
special teams, have kids committed to the program. It's really
kind of simple, but the simple things are hard to do."
The SMU defense, led by senior All-WAC linebacker Chris Bordano,
is allowing 327.4 yards per game, nearly 60 per game fewer than
the Mustangs permitted in their best defensive season since
resuming play in '89. The ground game has been strong, too; SMU
rushed for 391 yards against Tulsa. The Mustangs have committed
only 1.2 turnovers per game, and at that pace they'll finish
with the fewest for an SMU team in more than 40 years.
Senior quarterback Ramon Flanigan, the starter in three of the
past four years (he missed '95 because of a dislocated left
hip), is splitting time with redshirt freshman Chris Sanders,
but winning soothes any disappointment he feels about having to
share the job. "I was at a sports store the other day, and all
the SMU hats were sold out," Flanigan says. "There was a time
when no one even carried SMU hats."
"I think we're the best team in the state," says linebacker
Chris Gedwed. In Texas this year, that might not be saying much.
But no matter. SMU has found not only life after death but also
a winning season.
It doesn't qualify as a miracle, but Notre Dame (5-5) has won
three straight, including an impressive 24-6 win at No. 11
Louisiana State last Saturday, to keep alive its postseason
hopes. In the defeat of the Tigers, the Irish punted just once,
did not commit a turnover and played a penalty-free 60 minutes
for the first time since 1981. "We got our butts kicked," LSU
coach Gerry DiNardo said.
First-year Notre Dame coach Bob Davie attributes the Irish's
turnaround to the return to action of injured players, such as
junior inside linebacker Bobbie Howard, who had a team-high 10
tackles, one for a sack, against the Tigers, and senior
noseguard Corey Bennett, who had six tackles. "We've made
improvement, and a lot has to do with being healthier on
defense," Davie says.
A bigger factor in Notre Dame's resurgence, however, is that
Davie has gone back to the power running game used so
successfully by his predecessor, Lou Holtz. Early in the season
Davie and his staff tried a pass-oriented attack, but the lack
of a big-play receiver and the limitations of quarterback Ron
Powlus apparently persuaded them to keep the ball mainly on the
ground, where talented junior tailback Autry Denson could do
damage behind the Irish's mammoth, veteran offensive line.
Against LSU, Notre Dame rushed the ball 48 times (tying a season
high) for 260 yards (best this year), while attempting a
season-low 15 passes, completing seven for 79 yards.
Clemson and Iowa each could wind up losing big as a result of
scheduling a Division I-AA opponent. In 1991 the NCAA passed a
rule that requires a school to have six victories over Division
I-A teams to qualify for a bowl. Though both the Tigers and the
Hawkeyes are 6-4, each team counts a regional I-AA opponent
among its victims. On Sept. 6 Clemson defeated Appalachian State
23-12 and Iowa thumped Northern Iowa 66-0.
The games against the I-AA opponents had been agreed upon before
the rule was passed, and neither school backed out of the
commitment. As a result the Hawkeyes must beat Minnesota in Iowa
City on Saturday or their season will be over, and the Tigers
must handle archrival South Carolina on the Gamecocks' home turf
to qualify for a bowl bid.
ATTACK OF THE 50-YARD PUNTER
No college punter has finished a season with an average of 50
yards or better. The closest, Reggie Roby, boomed the ball 49.8
yards per kick as a junior at Iowa in 1981.
Now LSU senior Chad Kessler is on pace to break the 50-yard
barrier. He's averaging 50.35, in part because LSU sends in
another punter, Jeremy Witten, for those stat-killing pooch
kicks. Kessler, who has one game remaining, against Arkansas on
Nov. 28, already has the requisite 3.6 punts per game to qualify
for the punting championship.
USC, which is 6-4 after a 23-0 shutout of Oregon State, has been
in an upset-free zone. The Trojans have beaten six teams that
are currently unranked and have lost to four ranked
teams--Florida State (No. 2), Washington State (11), Arizona
State (12) and Washington (17). That doesn't bode well for
Southern Cal's showdown on Saturday against archrival UCLA. The
Trojans have lost six straight to the Bruins....
In January 1996 Siena's board of trustees voted to eliminate its
nonscholarship football program, but it reversed the decision a
month later. Reggie Greene is grateful for that. In a 34-9 loss
to Marist last Saturday, the senior tailback rushed for 80 yards
to finish the season with 1,778 and end his career with 5,415.
The latter is a Division I-AA record....
Indiana has scored one offensive touchdown in the last six games
and nine for the season. Nebraska's offense scored 11 TDs
against Iowa State last Saturday.
Check out more college football news from Ivan Maisel at
1. DEMONTRAY CARTER The Auburn freshman rushed for 93 yards and
a touchdown to revive the Tigers' moribund ground game in a
45-34 upset of Georgia in Athens.
2. RON TURNER Two Illinois students have been camping on the
roof of the campus radio station, vowing not to come down until
the Illini win. Turner, the Illinois coach, didn't give them
that--his team fell to 0-10 with its 41-6 loss to Ohio
State--but presented them with the next best thing: Illini
3. DAVID GREEN The Duke senior came off the bench to throw four
fourth-quarter touchdowns and pull the Blue Devils within a
field goal of upsetting Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets held on
1. ALABAMA By falling 32-20 last Saturday to Mississippi State,
the Crimson Tide finished the season 0-4 at Bryant-Denny
Stadium. But take heart: The last time a 4-6 Alabama team played
Auburn, in 1984, the Tide rolled.
2. THE BIG 12 Texas Tech, 6-4, has disqualified itself from
postseason play because it is likely to go on NCAA probation,
and last Saturday, Colorado dropped to 5-5 and Kansas to 5-6.
For the second straight year, it seems, the conference won't be
able to fill its six bowl slots.
3. DAYTON The Flyers, bidding to go 10-0 and be the first
nonscholarship team to reach the I-AA playoffs, lost 44-24 to
Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo--and in all likelihood lost their
OHIO STATE (10-1) AT MICHIGAN (10-0)
Poetic justice demands that the Buckeyes win, because the
Wolverines have upset Ohio State's national-championship hopes
each of the last two years. But there is little poetry in
football and less justice. While the Buckeyes' defense has
improved greatly during the year, Michigan's still has no peer
north of Tallahassee. This is Charles Woodson's final
opportunity to make his Heisman case. Expect him to make the
most of it.
FLORIDA STATE (10-0) AT FLORIDA (8-2)
There's no great upset history in this rivalry--the better team
wins. The Seminoles' season has gone just as coach Bobby Bowden
had hoped: The offensive line and running game have matured, the
defense has been dominant, and no key players have gotten hurt.
Florida State's reward awaits it in the Swamp.
WASHINGTON STATE (9-1) AT WASHINGTON (7-3)
The Cougars have momentum, and the Rose Bowl as an incentive.
The banged-up Huskies have fallen from national-championship
contender to Sun Bowl contender in two weeks. There's no reason
Washington should win--except that Washington State knocked it
out of the Rose Bowl twice in the 1980s.
EAST CAROLINA (5-5) AT NORTH CAROLINA STATE (5-5)
When the Wolfpack wanted money for a new basketball arena in
1995, the state legislature agreed--provided that North Carolina
State play the Pirates in football. Nothing hurt embattled
Wolfpack coach Mike O'Cain's standing with the alumni more than
a 50-29 loss to East Carolina last season. His job is at stake
against the Pirates, who have won four straight. Sentiment
dictates that the Wolfpack win. College football needs good guys
TENNESSEE (8-1) AT KENTUCKY (5-5)
Football historians may someday recall this game as the first
showdown between Peyton Manning and Tim Couch. The Wildcats
quarterback will wish they didn't recall it at all.