Good for you,Buckeyes and Trojans, Gators and Cardinals, Wolverines and everyone else incollege football's undefeated aristocracy. Take a bow, then scram. We aregathered today to celebrate a more implausible set of ovals--the zeros in theloss columns of a group of long-suffering but upwardly mobile programs, a trioof arrivistes who have arrived in October undefeated.
The oldestfootball program in America adopted a new custom last season. After each gamethe Ax Award is bestowed upon the Rutgers player who best embodies coach GregSchiano's pet slogan, "Keep chopping." That expression, a reminder tostay focused on the task at hand, regardless of what is happening all around,echoes the ancient Zen saying, "Chop wood, carry water."
Whether the goalis mindfulness or the Meineke Car Care Bowl (which has a Big East tie-in andwould dearly love to host the Scarlet Knights), resurgent Rutgers is on itsway. Though the Knights are several New Jersey Turnpike exits from greatness,they took a major step in that direction last Friday night in Tampa, holdingoff a dangerous South Florida squad 22--20.
While the Knightsof old would have found a way to lose this game, the 2006 edition merely almostfound a way to lose it, giving up a touchdown pass with 15 seconds left. But onthe two-point conversion attempt, cornerback Jason McCourty tore the ball fromthe grasp of Bulls wide receiver Amp Hill, and Rutgers was 5--0 for the firsttime in 30 years. "That," Schiano declared afterward, "was a60-minute chop."
October 8, 2006
Until Sept. 24,when the Scarlet Knights popped up at No. 23 in the AP poll--their firstranking since 1976--the program had been ranked for precisely six weeks of its137-year history. Rutgers's most renowned victory remains its first: a 6--4 winover Princeton in 1869 in the inaugural college football game. While it wouldbe glib to say that it has been downhill for the Knights ever since, itwouldn't be far off the mark. A sampler of the school's more recent futility:From 1991 through 2004 Rutgers went 49-106-1, and it failed to win a Big Eastgame from 2000 through '02.
"We didn'tknow how to win," says fifth-year senior Brian Leonard, a fullback fromGouverneur, N.Y., who raised his father's eyebrows by choosing the Knights overNotre Dame. "We just didn't have the confidence and the leadership. We donow."
While the6'2" 235-pounder started the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate--perhapsyou saw him on that Leonard-for-Heisman billboard in Times Square--he now justworks for one. Sophomore tailback Ray Rice, the nation's second-leading rusher,with 161.2 yards a game, gashed South Florida for 202 yards and twotouchdowns.
As with anynumber of Knights, Rutgers was not Rice's first choice. He committed toSyracuse during his junior year at New Rochelle (N.Y.) High, only to see coachPaul Pasqualoni canned following the '04 season. Not long after, Rice got acall from Schiano.
Now in his sixthseason, Schiano has been the driving force behind massive improvements to theschool's football facilities. The team is headquartered in the $13 million HaleCenter, a Valhalla that would be right at home among the pigskin palaces of theSEC and the Big 12. "I don't think you get top players because you havethem," says Schiano of the facilities, "but I think you lose thoseplayers if you don't."
While the Knightsremain a cut below the cream of the Big East--Louisville and WestVirginia--they are all but assured of their second straight winning season andbowl appearance. The surest sign that the program has arrived? Schiano isrumored to be under consideration to replace embattled Larry Coker atMiami.
Having dispatchedwinless Colorado 28--13 last Saturday, Missouri is 5--0 for the first timesince 1981. How is this happening? It helps when you beat the teams you'resupposed to beat. Last year Mizzou was upset at home by New Mexico. In 2004Troy stunned the Tigers in Alabama.
"Maybe in thepast we really haven't been as good in these types of games--in trapgames," says sophomore quarterback Chase Daniel, whose 23 completions in 35attempts against the Buffs included four touchdown passes. "But this is anew Missouri team."
Daniel replacedthe dazzling Brad Smith, who became the only player in Division I-A history topass for 8,000 yards and run for 4,000 and who is now getting touches on gadgetplays for the New York Jets. For all his gifts, Smith was never a comfortablefit in the spread option installed last season by coach Gary Pinkel. Daniel, onthe other hand, has been running the spread since his days at Southlake CarrollHigh, a powerhouse in suburban Dallas, and running it well. While he has provedsufficiently mobile to keep defenses honest--Daniel rushed for 89 yards in a34--7 beatdown of Ole Miss--he is also deadly accurate, having completed 63.8%of his attempts, and loves to spread the ball around.
Wideout WilliamFranklin had been his favorite target going into the Colorado game, but Danieldid most of his damage on Saturday by throwing to a pair of stud tight endswith NFL pedigrees. Martin Rucker, a 6'5" junior whose brother Michael is aCarolina Panthers defensive lineman, pulled in six passes for 66 yards and atouchdown. Chase Coffman, a 6'6" sophomore who's the son of former NFLtight end Paul, caught four passes for 31 yards and two scores.
These Tigers haveroared the loudest on the other side of the ball. Going into the Colorado game,Missouri led the nation in total defense. (The Tigers slipped to second, behindLSU, after allowing the Buffs 373 yards.) Highlighting a long list of maraudersflying to the ball has been undersized and unheralded end Brian Smith, a6'4", 230-pound pass-rushing force who has seven sacks this season,including four against New Mexico. He is bookended by fellow senior XzavieJackson. Their motto: Meet me at the quarterback.
"We're farfrom perfect," says Pinkel, who, though only 29--30 in his first fiveseasons at Missouri, took the Tigers to two bowl games. "But I guess thegood news is we can get better."
Word out ofColumbia is that Pinkel, never known for his gregariousness, has loosened up.One theory holds that he was befuddled trying to figure out how best to useBrad Smith. Now Pinkel is more relaxed, cracking jokes, presenting birthdaycakes to beat reporters. That looseness pervades a team that is looking moreand more like a serious threat to take the Big 12 North.
The ACC's lastundefeated team resides not in Tallahassee, Coral Gables or Blacksburg butrather in Winston-Salem, where Brian Piccolo once ran wild and where WakeForest ran off its fifth straight victory last Saturday with a 34--14 cakewalkover Liberty. It bears noting that Wake got a better game from the FightingFalwells, a I-AA squad, than it did from Ole Miss the week before. Playing inOxford, the Demon Deacons held the home team to 26 rushing yards in a 27--3 winmarked by the surreal sound of visiting spectators outshouting Rebels fans intheir own house. "We were in the locker room," recalls free safety JoshGattis, "and all we heard was 'Wake Forest' over the top of the Ole Missfans."
The din createdby Demon Deacons supporters is all the more impressive considering the size ofthis proud liberal-arts institution. With 4,037 students, Wake has thethird-smallest undergraduate enrollment in Division I-A. It is no small irony,then, that coach Jim Grobe has been winning on the strength of his team'sremarkable depth. Almost everybody on the team redshirts as a freshman. Infact, all but three of the 44 players on Wake's two-deep at the start of thisseason had redshirted.
Cut the Deaconssome slack for beating lowly Duke only 14--13. The truth is, this team has runthe table with one hand tied behind its back--or, in the case of juniorquarterback Ben Mauk, in a plaster cast. Mauk broke his right arm anddislocated his shoulder in the opener against Syracuse, and he's out for theseason. Preseason All-ACC tailback Micah Andrews, who tore his left ACL againstUConn, will probably miss the rest of the year as well. Left tackle Arby Jones,who had started 22 straight games, tore his left MCL against UConn and is outuntil mid- to late October.
Andrews wasreplaced by junior De'Angelo Bryant, who carried 22 times for 105 yards and atouchdown against Ole Miss. Jones's absence has been rendered less painful bythe superb play of utility hog Steve Vallos, a senior who has taken snaps atboth guard and tackle. Redshirt freshman Riley Skinner replaced Mauk.
Grobe has been inthe process of weaning his offense off the flex-bone, a misdirection-intensivescheme he learned as an assistant at Air Force and used with great success atOhio. "Our big play [at Wake] was the orbit sweep," he said last week,"where we faked a handoff inside and gave it to a wide receiver on a sweep.It was all misdirection. Now, everybody in the country runs it."
While theflex-bone and the orbit sweep wrong-footed Wake's ACC foes for a while, itsnovelty had worn off by last season, Grobe's fifth in Winston-Salem. Wakeworked hard last spring and over the summer to install what Grobe calls a"shotgun spread-option offense." Many of those plays fell out of theplaybook when Mauk went down. "Riley's learning the offense as hegoes," says Grobe.
The kid hadbetter learn fast. What has been, so far, a dream season gets very tough, verysoon. An angry Clemson team--which suffered its only defeat in double overtime,at Boston College; which has won its last two games, over North Carolina andLouisiana Tech, by a combined 103--7; and which has lost two straight to Wakein Winston-Salem--comes calling this Saturday. Indeed, the Deacons are alsounlikely to be favored in any of their final four games, against BC, FloridaState, Virginia Tech and Maryland.
If he needs aspark in any of those games, Grobe can always go back to his misdirectionattack. Late in the win over Ole Miss, offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzkecalled for an "orbit reverse" to wideout Kevin Marion, a sprinter onthe track team. The Rebels coaches didn't appreciate Wake's decision to run theplay. "I don't think Coach O [Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron] was very happywith me," says Grobe. "I guess he thought we were trying to run up thescore."
We should allhave such problems. The marketing suits at Rutgers struggled deciding whichstar running back to promote for the Heisman. At Mizzou the gifted youngquarterback has too many talented targets to choose from. Grobe, all of asudden, must work to keep the score down. Oh, well. As he and Schiano andPinkel can tell you: It beats the alternative.
Get the latest insights from Stewart Mandel and the ranking of every team from1 to 119 at SI.com/collegefootball
"Maybe in the past we really haven't been good intrap games," says Daniel. "But this is a NEW MISSOURI TEAM."
•LAST TIME 5--0: 1976
•Worth Noting: The Scarlet Knights have developed a recruiting pipeline intotalent-rich Florida. The roster features 22 players from the Sunshine State.;NEXT TEST: Oct. 14 at Navy ¬†
•LAST TIME 5--0: 1981
•Worth Noting: The Tigers, who have not trailed this season, are the only teamranked in the top 10 in total offense (10th) and total defense (second). NEXTTEST: This Saturday at Texas Tech
•LAST TIME 5--0: 1987
•Worth Noting: For the first time in the 54-year history of the ACC, the DemonDeacons are the last remaining undefeated team in the conference. NEXT TEST:This Saturday vs. Clemson