HEADING INTO last Thursday night's matchup against top-ranked USC—a game Oregon State entered as a 25-point underdog—the Beavers' Jacquizz Rodgers, a 5'7", 193-pound freshman running back, was considered too short of stature and in experience to have much impact. The Trojans' defense, after all, had held its first two opponents to an average of 51.5 yards on the ground. But by hiding behind his blockers and then darting into open spaces before the defense could react, Rodgers gashed the Trojans for 186 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries as the Beavers pulled off a 27--21 upset—marking the second consecutive time that a USC juggernaut has been upended in Corvallis.
If the loss ends up keeping the Trojans, who sank to No. 9 in the AP poll, from playing for the BCS national title, they'll regret that they underestimated Rodgers. Time and again he found cutback lanes and turned small gains into large ones. "A couple of [USC defenders] were like, Man, we can't see you!" says the soft-spoken Rodgers. He was a factor in the passing game as well, taking a screen pass 17 yards to the USC nine late in the first half. Three plays later his brother James, a star sophomore wideout, caught a three-yard TD pass to give the Beavers a 21--0 lead.
Rodgers grew up in a blighted section of the Houston suburb of Richmond. His mother, Tasha, an aide at a school for the mentally retarded, raised him and his three siblings while her brothers rotated as father figures. (Rodgers's father, James, has been in prison since 2004 on a drug conviction.) Tasha's older brother, Rodney Williams, a lawyer with a telecommunications company, minded Jacquizz's studies, sitting alongside the boy as he did his homework. Her younger brother, San Francisco 49ers safety Michael Lewis, a seven-year NFL veteran, supervised his nephew's football development. He'd ask his strength and conditioning coaches about drills for running backs, and he'd put Jacquizz through the same tire-pull runs and parachute sprints that pros do to build lower body strength.
The uncles' dedication was reflected in Rodgers's diligence at Lamar Consolidated High, where he ran for 8,245 yards and a state-record 136 TDs on the way to graduating with honors. Though many Texas schools expressed an interest in signing him, Rodgers followed his brother to Oregon State. That he has gone from small wonder to big man on campus so quickly speaks of the size of his greatest attribute: his heart.