A Real Eye-Opener
Jolted awake by a loss to Penn State, Purdue has soared to
first place in the Big Ten
A team can lose a game it shouldn't and let the defeat ruin its
season. Or it can use the defeat as a wake-up call and turn
around its season. Two weeks after falling 22-20 to Penn State,
which was 1-4 at the time, Purdue has rebounded to become one of
four teams tied for first place in the Big Ten; each has a 3-1
conference record. The Boilermakers have beaten all three of the
other coleaders--Minnesota 38-24, Michigan 32-31 and Northwestern
41-28 last Saturday--and host Ohio State (2-1 in the Big Ten) on
Oct. 28. In other words, they control their destiny. "That's all
that you can ask," says Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack,
whose charges spotted Northwestern two touchdowns in the first
7:33 and then didn't allow any points until the fourth quarter.
"No one can have any excuses."
That's the businesslike attitude the Boilermakers lacked in the
first month of the season. If Purdue goes to the Rose Bowl for
the first time in 34 years, the main reason will be the way it
responded after losing to the Nittany Lions. Coach Joe Tiller
likes his team to be loose, and early this season Friday
practices in particular reflected his light touch. No one took
the special teams walk-throughs too seriously, either. "The punt
team was not putting forth the effort," says junior defensive
tackle Matt Mitrione.
Poor special teams play cost Purdue dearly against Penn State.
The Nittany Lions set up their only two touchdowns by twice
tackling Travis Dorsch in the third quarter before he could get
off a punt. After the game Tiller realized he'd made a mistake.
"We want a team that's relaxed, but we had taken it to the next
level, the wrong level," he says. "We had been a silly team on
Fridays. We needed to get more serious."
When the players assembled for the Sunday meeting following the
Penn State game, Tiller wrote three things on the board in the
front of the room.
ARE WE A SMART TEAM?/ARE WE A DUMB TEAM?
ARE WE A DISCIPLINED TEAM?/ARE WE A SLOPPY TEAM?
ARE WE A SERIOUS TEAM?/ARE WE A SILLY TEAM?
Tiller then laid into the Boilermakers with a terse lecture. They
responded immediately--and positively. "Coach Tiller snapped on
us," says Mitrione. "We walked out and said, 'He's right.'" The
following week the punting unit was flawless and Dorsch made up
for a missed field goal with 2:11 to go in the fourth quarter by
kicking a 33-yarder with four seconds remaining to beat the
The rest of the Boilermakers are humming. Senior quarterback Drew
Brees, who threw for five touchdowns against Northwestern, is
leading an attack that's fourth in the nation in total offense
and 15th in scoring. The defense is second in the Big Ten against
the run and held Wildcat Damien Anderson, the nation's
third-leading rusher coming into the game, to 55 yards, 120 below
The victory over No. 17 Northwestern was Purdue's first road win
over a ranked team in Tiller's four seasons. Asked after the game
whether his players have taken his lesson to heart, Tiller smiled
and said, "So far."
Notre Dame's Secret
Irish Taking Care of the Ball
Even after putting up 447 yards in a 45-14 rout of winless Navy
last Saturday, Notre Dame ranks 96th out of 114 teams in total
offense. Of the 20 teams with the least productive offenses, the
Fighting Irish are one of only three with a winning record. One
reason Notre Dame is 4-2 and ranked 20th is that the Fighting
Irish, who last year committed a whopping 30 turnovers, have
handled the ball 493 times (265 rushes, 55 incomplete passes, 56
receptions, 81 kicks and punts, 36 returns) without losing a
fumble. Notre Dame has thrown a scant four interceptions.
That the Fighting Irish have started three inexperienced
quarterbacks--finally settling on freshman Matt LoVecchio--makes
their trusty ball handling all the more remarkable. Oddly enough,
experience at quarterback contributed to the glut of turnovers a
year ago. With young offensive linemen and running backs, Notre
Dame relied heavily on senior quarterback Jarious Jackson's
ability to run, pitch and pass, primarily out of the option
attack that the Irish have replaced with a traditional multiple
set. "We felt that Jarious had to create plays," says coach Bob
Davie. "We got reckless."
A year later, with less seasoned players at quarterback, the
Irish have been more conservative. In addition, the defense and
kicking are better. "We don't feel the offense has to create
plays to win," says Davie. Notre Dame has proved that so
conclusively that hope has sprung up among players and fans that
the Fighting Irish will go to a BCS Bowl.
Youth Is Served
Freshmen at Quarterback
When Peyton Manning took over as Tennessee quarterback in the
middle of his freshman season in 1994--only after the No. 1 and
No. 2 signal-callers had been injured, mind you--his ascent was
considered a tribute to his once-in-a-generation skills. Six
years later four freshmen are running sophisticated passing
attacks and doing it pretty well. Phillip Rivers is 5-1 at North
Carolina State, Rex Grossman has started and won Florida's last
two games, Craig Ochs led Colorado to its Oct. 7 upset at Texas
A&M in his first collegiate start, and Jared Lorenzen is third in
the nation in total offense (321.4 yards per game) for 2-5
The increase in coaches willing to gamble on freshmen is another
by-product of offenses that spread the field. "[The spread
offense] helps young quarterbacks read coverages," says Georgia
Tech offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, whose attack was
adeptly run by freshman Joe Hamilton in 1996. Coaches often don't
make freshmen their first option, though Rivers and Lorenzen have
started every game this season. At Colorado, Gary Barnett started
sophomore Zac Colvin and junior Bobby Pesavento before putting
Ochs on the field in the second quarter of the fourth game of the
year, a 44-21 loss to Kansas State. By the time Colorado had
fallen to 0-4, there was less pressure on Ochs to perform. He
responded by completing 15 of 25 passes for 239 yards and a
touchdown in the 26-19 victory at Texas A&M. Ochs still has
plenty to learn, however: Last Saturday in a 28-14 loss to Texas,
he completed just 11 of 32 passes for 69 yards.
The urge to get a talented offensive player on the field as
quickly as possible used to benefit tailbacks. But here's more
evidence of how offenses have changed: Mewelde Moore of Tulane,
who has run for 465 yards in five games, is the only freshman
among the top 40 rushers in the nation.
Akron's Interception King
Smith Having Breakout Year
One day Akron senior cornerback Dwight Smith might look back on
his fantastic 2000 season and point to one play as his most
memorable: a diving interception of a pass thrown by Virginia
Tech quarterback Michael Vick during the Zips' 52-23 loss to the
Hokies on Sept. 2. On the play Smith, who had improved his speed
and footwork with months of weight training and agility drills,
cut in front of Andre Davis to intercept the ball. Since
intercepting Vick, Smith has been on a tear, picking off seven
passes in Akron's last four games to take over the national lead
with eight interceptions.
If you've never heard of Smith, don't be surprised. Entering this
season he had just five career interceptions and carried a
reputation as the Zips' biggest underachiever. "When I came to
Akron, I thought I could get by on raw talent," says Smith, who
in 1996 rushed for more than 1,000 yards and had 12 interceptions
for Detroit Central. "After last year I decided it was time to
prepare for my future. Once I started to accept coaching, plays
started to come more easily."
Smith, who spent the majority of his childhood in the home of his
maternal grandparents, Robert and Cardell, was initially
recruited by Michigan, but the Wolverines dropped him after he
delayed sending his transcripts to the NCAA clearinghouse.
(Dwight had spent a year at a high school in Atlanta while living
with his mother, Brenda.) Akron stuck with Dwight and awarded him
a scholarship when he was cleared to play by the NCAA in
Early in Smith's career, getting him to go to class and watch
film "was a constant battle," says Zips pass defensive
coordinator Bob Morris. "He wasn't a dependable member of the
team." Smith was confident, but even that often worked against
him. After returning an interception against Ohio last season,
Smith was slapped with a 15-yard penalty for excessive
celebration. "I jumped on him about that," says Morris. "We've
had a lot of sit-down talks since then."
Those talks have helped bring about Smith's turnaround. He
improved his grades enough to avoid summer school this year, and
he has also become a student of the game, often spending his free
time studying film. Smith, who runs a 4.48 in the 40 and
bench-presses 410 pounds, has helped Akron this season not only
with his interceptions but also occasionally lining up at wide
receiver and returning punts and kickoffs. In last Saturday's
52-35 loss to Northern Illinois, he didn't make any interceptions
but caught one pass for 46 yards, and was on the field for all
but 10 minutes of the game.
"I realized I needed to humble myself to make a difference on
this team," says Smith, whose greatest lesson came with the birth
of his son, Dwight Jr., last November. Besides marrying Dwight
Jr.'s mother, Maresha Howard, as soon as he gets his degree in
business, the elder Dwight also aspires to earn enough money in
pro football to support the grandparents who raised him. "But
even if the NFL thing doesn't work out," he says, "football has
made me a better man."
For complete scores, schedules and stats, plus more news from
Ivan Maisel and B.J. Schecter, go to cnnsi.com/football/college.
--Virginia Tech (6-0) at Syracuse (3-3)
Hokies coach Frank Beamer has won 17 consecutive regular-season
games and three of the last five Big East Conference titles. But
he's 0-5 in the Carrier Dome. This year Syracuse is stout
defensively, and Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick, a slow
starter all season, had best not spot the Orange a first-half
lead. No stadium gets loud more quickly than the Dome. The Hokies
will hear an earful before they pull away.
--Alabama (3-3) at Tennessee (2-3)
Crimson Tide coach Mike DuBose took advantage of the bye week
before last Saturday night's 45-7 rout of Ole Miss to increase
what he called "fundamental" work, which is coachspeak for
contact. Alabama's tackling improved tremendously against the
Rebels. The Volunteers have won five straight games against the
Tide. Their winning streak won't extend to six.
--Arizona (5-1) at Oregon (5-1)
In a game between the only two teams unbeaten in Pac-10 play, the
Ducks have a lot going for them. Their 18-game home winning
streak is second only to Florida State's 31-game streak, and
Wildcats coach Dick Tomey is 0-4 at Autzen Stadium. In recent
years Oregon has been susceptible to midseason slumps, caused
largely by injuries. These Ducks are healthy. They will extend
their streak and take sole possession of first place in the
Ya Gotta Love This Guy
Derrick Walker is too used to handling difficult roles. He
succeeded former Kansas State star and current New England
Patriots backup Michael Bishop as quarterback at Blinn (Texas)
Junior College. He then moved to Iowa State, where he was
relegated to backup duties behind Sage Rosenfels. Last fall
Walker completed 9 of 18 passes for 106 yards and threw two
interceptions. He seemed unlikely to see much more action than
that this year as a senior, so during the off-season he
volunteered to play outside linebacker. The switch has paid off
for the 6'2", 220-pound Walker, who has made 40 tackles,
including two sacks, broken up three passes and forced and
recovered a fumble. He has become a cornerstone of a defense that
has helped carry the Cyclones to a 5-1 record. If Walker, who is
married with two daughters, ever needs to explain to his kids the
importance of taking on challenges, he can tell them about his
Minnesota junior quarterback Travis Cole, who replaced freshman
Asad Abdul-Khaliq as the starter on Sept. 30, practiced so poorly
four days before the Gophers' game at Ohio State last Saturday
that coach Glen Mason chewed him out and temporarily took him off
the first team. Cole obviously shook it off. He completed 16 of
28 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns as Minnesota stunned
the previously unbeaten Buckeyes 29-17. Cole's favorite target,
junior Ron Johnson torched Ohio State cornerback Nate Clements,
catching eight passes, six on third down, for 163 yards and a
After Kansas State humiliated Kansas 52-13 on Oct. 7, Jayhawks
athletic director Bob Frederick said, "If e-mails were bullets,
I'd be dead." Kansas coach Terry Allen responded to the loss by
doubling the number of contact drills and cutting the travel
roster for Saturday's game at Missouri from 80 players to 64.
Allen wanted "to rid the sideline of players who lacked focus."
The Jayhawks responded with a 38-17 victory over the Tigers that
ran their record to 3-3....
Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary was glad to see last week end.
On Oct. 11 the mother of former Yellow Jackets offensive lineman
Dustin Vaitekunas publicly accused O'Leary of abusing her
314-pound son during a September practice by making Vaitekunas
stand alone with a ball while four defensive linemen ran at him
full speed. Two of the linemen actually hit Vaitekunas against
O'Leary's wishes. Vaitekunas wasn't injured and has since quit
the Yellow Jackets. To top things off, on Saturday while Georgia
Tech was defeating Wake Forest 52-20, O'Leary's laptop computer
was stolen from his office....
By losing 28-17 to Oregon, USC fell to 0-3 in the Pac-10 for the
first time since 1957. In the three defeats, junior Carson
Palmer has thrown seven interceptions.