A Cut Above
Northern Illinoisback Garrett Wolfe is cruising toward the rushing title, and he's doing itagainst programs big and small
IT WASN'T as ifevery marquee program in the country took a pass on Garrett Wolfe, the NorthernIllinois senior tailback who leads the nation in rushing. It was every marqueeprogram but one.
Florida offeredhim a scholarship in 2002. Considering, however, that it still makes Wolfeprofoundly homesick to drive the 60-odd miles from his native Chicago toDeKalb, Ill., going to Gainesville was out of the question. "I wouldn'thave been comfortable in Florida," he says. "I need to feelcomfortable."
Having rushed foran outrageous 236.2 yards per game this season—the country's second-leadingground-gainer, Ray Rice of Rutgers, is 75 yards a game back—Wolfe, it is fairto say, has found his comfort zone. He certainly seemed right at home in a40--28 win at Ball State last Saturday, when he carried 31 times for aschool-record 353 yards and scored on runs of 51, 48 and 53 yards.
Before you chalkup his garish output to lightweight opponents, recall that in the Huskies'opener Wolfe ran amok against top-ranked Ohio State, piling up 171 yardsrushing and another 114 receiving in a 35--12 loss. Last season he gashedMichigan for 148 yards on 17 carries. As Ohio University coach Frank Solichputs it, "He isn't just running up and down the field against air."
Wolfe had acouple of strikes against him as a senior at Chicago's Holy Cross High: He wasan indifferent student, and he stood 5'7". After spending his first seasonin DeKalb red shirting and getting his act together in the classroom, he had tosit out a second season because, as coach Joe Novak says, "we misadvisedhim," and he ended up an hour short of being eligible.
By the time the2004 season rolled around, Wolfe had shown so much in practice that, Novaksays, "I told anyone who would listen, 'We've got to get this kid the ball10 or 12 touches a game.'" You think?
Wolfe, then thesecond-string tailback, filleted Bowling Green for 204 yards rushing in thesecond half of NIU's fourth game of the season. Seven games later he carried 43times for 325 yards against Eastern Michigan. While 43 carries was high, evenfor the workaholic Wolfe, he has averaged 26.4 rushes per game over the lasttwo seasons. How does the 177-pounder absorb that many hits and show up formeetings on Sunday in one piece?
While Novakreports that Wolfe is spinning out of more tackles this season, it's not as ifthe senior is auditioning for Dancing With the Stars. "You don't see himhopping around, trying to juke people," says senior left tackle Doug Free.That said, "He's got a knack for avoiding big collisions. Nobody ever getsa square shot at him." Well, not usually. Last year Wolfe averaged 175.6yards on the ground, second-best in the country, but missed three games with aknee injury.
Wolfe combinesgreat instincts and vision—"the best I've seen in 38 years ofcoaching," says Novak—with the focus and discipline he has acquired sincearriving in DeKalb. Over the summer he asked running backs coach Thomas Hammockfor, among other footage, tape of the Kansas City Chiefs. He wanted to see how6'1", 230-pound Larry Johnson hit the holes in K.C.'s zone-blocking scheme,which is similar to the Huskies'.
Wolfe understandsthat the Heisman is a long shot. Of all the stars to emerge from the MAC inrecent seasons—quarterbacks Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich and BenRoethlisberger—only Pennington received serious Heisman consideration (fifth inthe 1999 voting). Still, if Wolfe continues to lead the nation in rushing bysuch a ridiculous margin, he deserves at least a trip to New York.
One importantconstituency already appreciates him. At a gathering of the Playboy preseasonAll-America team in Phoenix over the summer, Wolfe mingled with players fromhigher-profile conferences, such as wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett from USC andquarterback Troy Smith and wideout Ted Ginn from Ohio State. They recognizedhim from Northern Illinois's midweek appearances on national TV and told himhow much they admired his work.
Leave it to aroomful of stars to know one of their own.
Patience Pays ForCougars QB
John Beck's firstthree snaps as a BYU quarterback went like this: sack, fumble,interception.
But there was anupside to this sorry series, which occurred during the Cougars' nationallytelevised game against Georgia Tech in 2003. ESPN temporarily lost its feed, soBeck's friends back home never saw the carnage.
Those three playsprovided an appropriately tumultuous beginning to the "long, rockyroad" that Beck traveled for the next three seasons. That description comesfrom Cougars second-year coach Bronco Mendenhall, who stood smiling under thelights at TCU's Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth last Thursday night. In whatthe coach described as the most significant win of his career, the Cougarsknocked off the 15th-ranked Horned Frogs 31--17, snapping the nation's longestwinning streak at 13 games. It was BYU's third win of the season—followingnarrow, dagger-in-the-heart losses to Arizona and Boston College—and its firstroad win over a ranked opponent in nine years.
The best playerin the stadium was Beck, now an even-keeled senior who took the field with whatappeared to be two pounds of tape on each ankle. (He has badly sprained boththis season.) Against TCU's swarming 4-2-5 defense and behind a line missing apair of starters, Beck was better than good, perfectly dropping balls intospots and calmly working through his progressions. He finished with 23completions in 37 attempts for 321 yards, with three touchdowns and nointerceptions.
John is one ofthe three children of Wendell and Julie Beck. Wendell ran track at BYU. Manywere the Decembers that the Becks road-tripped from their home in Mesa, Ariz.(where John would star at quarterback for Mountain View High) to San Diego tosee the Cougars play in the Holiday Bowl. John has a picture of himself as a10-year-old posing with Ty Detmer. Winning the quarterback's job at BYU was hisdream.
But there wasnothing dreamy about that debut against Georgia Tech, about suffering aconcussion against USC in his next game, about throwing two interceptions inhis first start, an 18--14 loss to Stanford. While he came into this seasonwith 7,136 career passing yards and is likely to finish as BYU's second-mostprolific passer, behind Detmer, Beck is the first to admit that he has come upshort in the W's department.
That's no oneperson's fault. BYU hasn't had a winning season since 2001. Mendenhall, Beck'sthird head coach, makes the point that when things on the field have been attheir stormiest, "John's steadiness, his passion for BYU, has been abeacon." Mendenhall likes the way Beck doesn't let what happens on thefield affect his self-image. Says the coach, "He knows what he's capableof."
Despite havingplayed in only 25 games, Garrett Wolfe is comfortably ahead of other activeDivision I-A ballcarriers in career rushing.
Beck guided BYU to its first road win over a ranked opponent since 1997.