After learning the ropes early, five first-year backs broke out
in the season's second half
Texas freshman tailback Cedric Benson's performance in the
Longhorns' 21-7 victory at Texas A&M last Friday resembled his
season: a slow start and a big finish. Benson had minus-five net
yards after his first six carries against the Aggies but then
rushed for 84 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns that broke
open a tie game. Heading into Saturday's Big 12 championship
game, Benson is 24 yards short of becoming the first Texas
freshman to rush for 1,000 yards, which is remarkable
considering that the 6'1", 200-pounder was used sparingly until
becoming a starter in the sixth game of the season, supplanting
struggling sophomore Ivan Williams. Since then Benson has rushed
for 788 yards and eight touchdowns. It's no accident that the
third-ranked Longhorns (10-1), who finished atop the Big 12
South thanks to Oklahoma's 16-13 loss to Oklahoma State last
Saturday, have won those games by an average of 31.6 points.
"Some guys are slashers," Texas running backs coach Bruce
Chambers says. "Some guys are power guys. Some guys make people
miss. Cedric is all those things. He's got great vision, and
he's very intelligent."
Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary espouses a theory stipulating
that the farther away a player lines up from center, the better
chance he has of playing as a freshman. It's a different way of
saying that tailbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs rely
more on natural skill than do linemen, linebackers and
quarterbacks, who must be physically strong and/or technically
proficient. "I really think, if you're a Big Ten-caliber running
back, either you can do it or you can't do it," says Minnesota
coach Glen Mason, whose freshman tailback, Marion Barber III,
finished the season with 742 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per
Benson and Barber were the best of an impressive group of
freshman running backs this fall who excelled in the second half
of the season. At 5'11", 190 pounds, Texas A&M's Derek Farmer
rushed for 503 yards and two touchdowns in his first eight games
but hyperextended his left knee against Oklahoma on Nov. 10 and
missed the Aggies' final game. Five-foot-11, 185-pound Auburn
tailback Carnell Williams appeared indestructible in rushing for
a total of 344 yards (170 after contact) on 60 carries in
consecutive games against Arkansas and Georgia. However, he
suffered a broken left clavicle on the sixth play of the Tigers'
meeting with Alabama on Nov. 17, after having gained 614 yards
and six touchdowns. A season-ending knee injury to Virginia Tech
junior Lee Suggs in the Hokies' opening game forced Kevin Jones
to play a bigger role, and he has responded with 797 yards and
five touchdowns this fall.
What these five freshmen have in common is that they were given
roughly half a season to get acclimated to the college game
before they became a significant part of their offenses. The
rise of the pro-style passing attacks demands that running backs
block to help protect the quarterback. "What caught me off guard
was blitz pickup," says Benson, who finished his career at
Midland (Texas) Lee High last fall with 8,423 rushing yards. "If
we were passing at my high school, I was out on a route."
That's typical, especially in a high school offense built around
a star tailback. The college tailback must recognize defensive
schemes and be ready to adjust on the fly. "If you change your
plays at the line of scrimmage," says Maryland running backs
coach Mike Locksley, "you send him in there thinking he's going
to carry the ball, and you wind up changing to a pass play. He's
got to figure out what front it is. He has got to understand
what blocking schemes are in front of him and whom to pick up."
Many coaches believe that the more a freshman plays, the better
he will adjust from the high school game to college, simply
because the demands on him are so great that he doesn't have
time to get homesick. Benson isn't so sure. "Playing makes it a
little more difficult," he says. "You've got to devote a lot of
time to school. You have to watch film, study plays, study
defenses. You're a little more sore, so you stay in the training
room longer. When you're doing well, you've got to do more to
Filling Bowl Berths
Teams' Proximity Will Be Factor
The drop-off in air travel since the Sept. 11 attacks has bowl
representatives across the country concerned that fans won't
journey as far as they normally would to see their team play.
The proximity of schools to bowl venues is more important than
ever. "There's kind of a shared philosophy," says John Junker,
executive director of the Fiesta and Insight.com bowls, "that
you want to have as little travel as possible."
That is the reason why the Gator Bowl, which matches ACC and Big
East teams, has chosen Virginia Tech, the third place team in
the Big East, to play Florida State over second-place Syracuse.
"Like it or not there is an economic element to our decision,"
said Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett on Monday.
In addition to the fear-of-flying factor, the postponement of
Sept. 15 games, many of which were rescheduled for last Saturday
and this weekend, leaves less time for fans to make airline
reservations and get low-priced tickets. The Las Vegas Bowl,
which last season invited Arkansas of the SEC, this year hopes
to match USC and Utah because both Los Angeles and Salt Lake
City are within driving distance. "Some bowls are sold out no
matter whom they invite," says Tina Kunzer-Murphy, executive
director of the Las Vegas Bowl, "but it makes sense for us to
get teams that can travel here easily."
Buckeyes Help Illini
Big Ten Title, Without Roses
After his team defeated Northwestern 34-28 on Thanksgiving to
finish 10-1 (7-1 in the Big Ten), Illinois coach Ron Turner gave
his players the rest of the holiday weekend off. That, however,
didn't mean the Illini got to relax. Last Saturday they
discovered the agony of watching on television those who would
decide their fate. Only with an Ohio State victory over Michigan
would they win the conference championship, their first since
1990, and earn a berth in a BCS bowl.
The stakes caused grown men to do strange things. Former
Michigan lineman Jerry Schumacher and his brother-in-law, former
Wolverines assistant coach Frank Maloney, rooted for the
Buckeyes. That's because Jerry's son, Jerry Jr., is a starting
linebacker for Illinois. Still, Jerry Sr. had his limits. "My
dad wouldn't allow anything with Ohio State on it in the house,"
Jerry Jr. said on Sunday.
The Illini watched with joy as the Buckeyes raced to a 23-0
halftime lead, sweated out a Michigan comeback to pull within
26-20 in the final three minutes and celebrated when Ohio State
prevailed. The outcome helped Illinois complete a journey that
began at the bottom of the Big Ten in 1997, when the Illini went
0-11 in Turner's first season. In '99 they improved to 8-4 before
falling back to 5-6 last year. This season, with a revamped, more
aggressive defense designed by new coordinator Mike Cassity,
Illinois increased its interceptions from 12 in 2000 to 18 and
its sacks from 18 to 39. On offense the leadership and
intelligence provided by senior quarterback Kurt Kittner (2,994
yards throwing and 23 touchdown passes) were crucial to the
"People look at Kurt's completion percentage [55.3]," Turner
says. "We throw downfield a lot. I haven't charted it lately, but
in the first four games, when he completed 52 percent, we had 16
drops and he had 12 throwaways. He's made his mistakes, but the
measure of a quarterback is winning. Twice we had a lead on the
road and lost it, and both times he brought us back to win."
Kittner watched the Ohio State victory over Michigan with
friends at a sports bar in downtown Chicago. "You couldn't write
a better book," says Kittner of his college career. Thrust into
the starting lineup as a freshman, he is the second-leading
Illini passer of all time. However, he thinks the epilogue needs
some editing. Because the Rose Bowl is the site of the national
championship game, the Illini will most likely play in the
Fiesta, Sugar or Orange bowl. "Everyone's goal in the Big Ten is
to get to the Rose Bowl," Kittner says. "It kind of stinks, but
we'll get over it."
North Texas Turnaround
Five Wins and a Bowl Berth
Though Maryland and Illinois might come to mind, the most
improbable bowl team of 2001 is North Texas--the Sun Belt
champion and winner of the conference's automatic berth in the
inaugural New Orleans Bowl. Even if the Mean Green (5-5) drops
its regular-season finale, a nonconference game at Troy State
this Saturday, and thus fail to reach the NCAA minimum of six
wins for a bowl appearance, they'll still go to the bowl by
virtue of being the Sun Belt champion. "Because we're conference
champions, these kids are very deserving," says Mean Green coach
Darrell Dickey, a former Kansas State quarterback who led the
Wildcats to their first bowl, the Independence, in 1982.
After losing its Sun Belt conference opener to Louisiana-Monroe,
19-17 on Oct. 6, North Texas, which was picked to finish fourth
in the league, was 0-5 overall, and Dickey, who's in the fourth
year of a five-year contract, was in danger of losing his job.
"I went to Darrell and said, 'I believe in you, but I need
something I can show the trustees [to get his contract
extended],'" says North Texas athletic director Rick Villareal.
The Mean Green gave Villareal what he was looking for: five
straight victories, including a 50-27 win at Idaho on Nov. 17
that clinched their first bowl berth in 42 years. North Texas
and Middle Tennessee State (8-3) both have 5-1 conference
records, but the Mean Green's 24-21 win over Middle Tennessee on
Oct. 13 was the tiebreaker.
While a spot in the New Orleans Bowl opposite the third-place
team from the Mountain West may not sound like much, few
programs could benefit more from the appearance and the $750,000
guaranteed payout than North Texas. Since their heyday in the
late 1960s and '70s, when Hayden Fry was the coach and Mean Joe
Greene was the star, the Eagles have endured two decades of
university deemphasis of athletics, including dropping the
football program to Division I-AA in 1983. Six years ago North
Texas returned to Division I-A, and since then the Mean Green
has gone 24-53.
"We lost touch with our alumni base, and this program has run on
fumes," says Villareal, who was hired seven months ago from
Southern Mississippi, where he had been an associate athletic
director. "We've done virtually nothing in eight to 10 years to
After the Idaho victory Villareal told Dickey and the players
that the trustees had approved a three-year extension to Dickey's
contract. Afterward a relieved Dickey said, "I'm glad I can call
the realtor and say, 'Don't sell the house.'"
Penn State Savior Mills
Freshman Passer Comes Through
Before the season Penn State freshman quarterback Zack Mills set
a goal of being prepared in case anything happened to senior
starter Matt Senneca. As the Nittany Lions slipped to an 0-4
start, he raised his goal to winning the starting job. Then,
when Senneca got hurt in Game 5 against Northwestern, Mills, a
heralded recruit from Ijamsville, Md., came in and threw the
game-winning touchdown pass in a 38-35 win. The following week
against Ohio State, Mills relieved Senneca after one series and
threw for 280 yards and ran for 138 more to lift the Lions to a
29-27 upset victory.
Mills started the next two games, beating Southern Miss before
spraining his left ankle and leaving with a 14-0 lead against
Illinois. Penn State lost that game 33-28. Last Saturday, in his
first appearance since the injury, Mills again came off the bench
for the third time and led the Lions to victory. "I never thought
I'd be having the season I'm having," Mills said on Sunday, a day
after the Lions' 42-37 defeat of Michigan State.
The win evened Penn State's record at 5-5, a considerable
achievement after that horrendous beginning. Mills has completed
115 of 206 passes for 1,533 yards and eight touchdowns, with
nine interceptions. He has rushed for 145 yards and three
scores. The numbers, though, don't measure the shot of
adrenaline he gives the offense. "The biggest thing is his
competitiveness," says quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno of Mills.
"Early on he didn't do the things in practice that he has done
in games." Against Michigan State, Mills took over for Senneca
in the second quarter with the Nittany Lions trailing by 17
points. He completed 13 of 24 passes for 240 yards and a
touchdown to engineer the comeback.
Mills will start on Saturday against Virginia in a game that
could mean the difference between a losing record and a bowl
bid. "We're well beyond where we were [at the start of the
season]," Mills says. He's the big reason why.
For complete scores, schedules and stats, plus Ivan Maisel's
exclusive weekly Heisman Watch, go to cnnsi.com/football/college.
YA GOTTA LOVE THIS GUY
For four years Clemson running back Tore White toiled as a
walk-on who saw limited action on special teams and was, in his
words, a "practice utensil." He dreamed of earning a football
scholarship. Earlier this season Tigers coach Tommy Bowden
awarded one to White, who'd redshirted as a freshman and is
scheduled to graduate with a degree in microbiology in May. A
few days later White gave it back. Having already earned a South
Carolina Police Corps Scholarship and other grants, he would
have received about $2,000 from the football grant-in-aid;
another player who didn't receive nonathletic aid would get as
much as $9,400 to cover tuition, room and board. "The $2,000 was
much less important than helping somebody else," says White, who
had eight tackles on special teams this year. "I always want to
give back." Unbeknownst to White, Bowden then awarded the
scholarship to junior fullback Tyrone Lee, another special teams
player and White's roommate on the road. "I always knew Tore had
a big heart and was a good guy," Lee says, "but that was really
An NFL scout assesses Florida wide receiver Jabar Gaffney (left),
a 6'1", 197-pound sophomore who has caught 60 passes for 1,090
yards and 12 touchdowns.
"He's the first receiver I think of--talented and really good
out of the Gators' base looks. Following the catch he's a fast
runner and very slippery. I can't remember seeing him block.
I've never seen a Florida receiver block. Scouts just figure
that's one thing that [Gators coach Steve] Spurrier doesn't make
his receivers do. I think he's coming out. If he does, he'll go
in the first round."
"Levron Williams is scared to run up the middle on us. He's
going to try to bounce outside and be a pretty boy. He doesn't
want any piece of us."
A comment by Purdue defensive tackle Matt Mitrione that appeared
in the Lafayette (Ind.) Journal and Courier and found its way
onto Indiana's bulletin board last week. Williams ran for 94
yards, including a 52-yard touchdown, in a 13-7 win that earned
the Hoosiers the Old Oaken Bucket.
HEAD TO HEAD
Texas's red-zone offense against Colorado's red-zone defense
The Longhorns lead the Big 12 in scoring from inside the 20-yard
line, with 39 touchdowns and nine field goals in 54 possessions.
They also haven't turned the ball over in that area. The
Buffaloes' defense finished last in the conference in stopping
teams in the red zone, giving up 15 touchdowns and six field
goals in 26 opponents' attempts. Texas's balanced offense,
featuring tailback Cedric Benson and two jump-ball-catching
wideouts, 6'5" Roy Williams and 6'2" Sloan Thomas, keeps
defenses honest near the goal line. That trio had five
touchdowns in the Longhorns' 41-7 defeat of Colorado on Oct. 20.