Conference USA possesses nation's top two RBs
Posted: Thursday November 1, 2007 2:10PM; Updated: Friday November 2, 2007 8:44PM
Tommy West has been coaching since 1979, but never in his career has he had a team that's had to face the nation's top rusher twice in the same season.
Four weeks into the year, West's Memphis team headed to UCF to take on the country's then-No. 1 rusher, Kevin Smith. Five games later, the Tigers were again facing the nation's top runner, this time it was Tulane's Matt Forte.
Conference USA is well represented among the national rushing leaders, with Forte at No. 1 (1,539 yards), Smith second (1,260) and Houston's Anthony Aldridge 10th (1,063). Only the Big Ten has more backs in the top 10 with four.
"When you look at those backs, and of course there's other backs in the league, the one at Southern Miss [Damion Fletcher] is pretty good ... there's just a lot of really good skill players," West said. "It may not be as good offensive and defensive lines as a lot of the BCS schools, but from a skill players standpoint, I think this league is outstanding."
And this season it all starts with Forte and Smith. The two record-breaking backs don't pay attention to each other's statistics, and have only met once, at the C-USA media days in New Orleans, but it's becoming increasingly harder for one to shake the other.
"Each week it's like they're looking at the other one to see if they catch each other and they're kind of raising the bar," said Tulane running backs coach Greg Davis Jr.
Smith set the tone early, taking the first handoff of the season for a school-record 80-yard touchdown against North Carolina State and finishing the game with a career-high 217 yards. But Forte has taken it to a level no other player has reached this season. The 6-foot-1, 211-pounder has the nation's two highest rushing games so far, going for a C-USA record 303 yards against Southeastern Louisiana and 342 against SMU four games later.
"I never would have thought [about] 300-yard games, even one," Forte said. "I wouldn't even thought that. To have two -- that's amazing."
It's even more of a surprise considering Forte was coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss the last three games of his junior year, and the Green Wave offensive line was largely inexperienced entering this season. But first-year coach Bob Toledo installed an offense that featured the tailback and Forte is carrying the ball 29 times a game, including a career-high 44 against Memphis. He's averaging 6.6 yards per carry despite seeing eight- and nine-man fronts that know No. 25 is going to get the ball time and time again.
"The more times I get the ball, the more chances I have to make plays," Forte said. "This is my senior season and I've been making the most of it every time I carry the ball."
Forte credits his productivity and durability to his offseason regimen. Knowing he was going to get more carries in Toledo's offense -- and to prove he was showing no effects from the injury -- he took part in both of Tulane's daily summer workouts.
"I would run twice a day and lift, most of the time, twice a day," Forte said. "Once my body got used to doing that I figured the season would be easy for me."
It didn't exactly start out that way, though. Forte had 47 yards in the season opener against Ole Miss and 85 the next week against Houston. But it was the third game of the season when he opened eyes with the first of his 300-yard games. Since then, he's only had one game with less than 200 yards (a 73-yard day against LSU). He is one 200-yard performance shy of tying the NCAA record of five straight shared by Marcus Allen, Barry Sanders and Jamario Thomas.
"He has real good vision," Houston defensive coordinator Alan Weddell said. "It takes more than one person to bring him down and I think he carries his pads well. I think he is faster in pads than people give him credit for."