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College Football

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Inside College Football

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Wednesday November 11, 1998 01:25 PM

This week's topics:
A Real Nutt Job | Another Change At Auburn
More Than Merely Moss  | Early Reveille at Oregon State
Tree Huggers vs. Tree Muggers | Big Man in The Big Easy
Hot List | Fast Forward


A Real Nutt Job  

Coach Houston Nutt has revived Arkansas to the tune of 8-0

by Ivan Maisel

  Madre Hill and the rampaging Razorbacks blew through Ole Miss for 207 yards on the ground. David E. Klutho
Sports Illustrated First-year Arkansas coach Houston Nutt has a simple message for the Razorbacks' players and faithful: Believe. Believe in him. Believe in the Hogs. Nutt, who grew up in Little Rock, came home from Boise State last December and took over a 4-7 team dispirited by losing and by the rigid discipline of fired coach Danny Ford. Nutt tapped into the reserve of Razorbacks pride that lay in his heart and in the heart of Arkansas fans.

"I remember seeing people outside the stadium holding up two fingers and three fingers, and I would ask my dad what they were doing," Nutt says, referring to the universal sign for, I need two (or three) tickets. "My goal this year was to have people holding up fingers after two games."

He has met that goal. In a cold downpour last Saturday, a sellout crowd of 49,115 at Razorback Stadium saw more than it had dared hope to see. With a stunningly easy 34-0 wipeout of Ole Miss, Arkansas raised its record to 8-0 and its ranking to No. 10 heading into its SEC showdown against No. 1 Tennessee. Picked to finish last in the SEC West, the Razorbacks have a two-game lead in the division.

"Last year if we'd get down in a game by seven, you'd look at the sideline, and there would be the coach with his head down," says guard Brandon Burlsworth. "His shoulders were slumped. That filtered down to the players. A week ago Auburn scored two quick touchdowns and went ahead 21-17 in the third quarter. Coach Nutt is standing there erect. You can see in his face he has no doubt we're going to win. That's one thing about this team. We believe."

Nutt, 41, and his nine assistants—seven of whom grew up in Arkansas or played for the Razorbacks—turned attitudes around by injecting themselves into the players' lives, often dropping by their dorm rooms and apartments. Nutt, who lettered in football and basketball at Arkansas and Oklahoma State, had a basketball hoop installed inside a football practice facility and quickly got an inkling of what he was up against when he and his staff went undefeated in three-on-three games against players last spring and summer. "That wasn't a very good sign," he says. "I thought, How are we going to win football games in the SEC?"

In the last session of two-a-days, with a scrimmage on the schedule, Nutt brought the players together and announced, "When I blow this whistle, I want everyone to go...swimming!" Once they arrived at the campus indoor pool, the Hogs showed their appreciation by throwing every coach, plus trainer Dean Weber, into the water.

Nutt took special interest in senior defensive end C.J. McLain, whom Ford kicked off the team with two games left last season for testing positive for marijuana. "I come to tears every time I think about how much Coach Nutt's reaching out meant to me," says McLain, who got his team-leading fifth sack against the Rebels. At Nutt's behest McLain had extra meetings with the coaches and underwent extra drug tests. He did what Nutt asked of him. "So many things could have gone another way," McLain says. "I love being a Razorback. I love working hard for Coach Nutt."

A year ago Arkansas removed 1,200 seldom-sold seats from the south end zone at Razorback Stadium and planted grass in their place. Last Friday the board of trustees approved the hiring of an architect to design a $60 million, 20,000-seat expansion of the stadium. The way Nutt's team is going, even then the fans may be holding up fingers.

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Another Change At Auburn  

On Nov. 1, nine days after Auburn coach Terry Bowden had resigned under pressure, interim coach and defensive coordinator Bill Oliver fired offensive coordinator Rodney Allison. That has given Tigers players about all the excitement they can stand for one season. Freshman tailback Michael Burks says he will discuss with his mother whether to transfer. "You trust the head coach with your four years, and he's fired," Burks says. "Then you turn around and your position coach is fired. You don't know what to expect."

Allison and Bowden are close. When Bowden explained his departure in an emotional speech to the Tigers on Oct. 23, Allison left the room in tears. That didn't sit well with Oliver, who already had decided to take play-calling duties away from Allison and give them to quarterbacks coach Jimbo Fisher. Before the Louisiana Tech game the next day, Allison learned he would no longer call plays. He put his house up for sale. Six days later, on the morning after Auburn's 24-21 loss to Arkansas, Oliver told Allison to leave. "We all need to be pulling on the rope in the same direction," Oliver told the media after canning Allison.

Oliver, who is 2-1 after the Tigers' 10-6 victory over Central Florida last Saturday, will most likely have his interim status lifted at the end of the season. If he's not pulling on the rope next year, the Tigers will be at the end of theirs. "I think if they bring in somebody other than Coach Oliver, the players aren't going to play up to their potential," says senior nosetackle Charles Dorsey.

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More Than Merely Moss  

When a sophomore quarterback leads the nation with 39 touchdown passes, has a higher pass-efficiency rating than Peyton Manning and throws for a conference-record 3,480 yards, as Marshall's Chad Pennington did in the Mid-American Conference in 1997, he's usually the team's focal point. But another player in Huntington, W.Va., grabbed the spotlight last year—a guy by the name of Randy Moss, who was on the receiving end of 25 of Pennington's TD tosses.

Now that Moss plays for the Minnesota Vikings, Pennington has shown that the Thundering Herd had a pretty good quarterback to go with its All-America receiver. This season, without a deep threat, Pennington has completed passes to 17 teammates while connecting on 65.5% of his throws, for 2,848 yards and 21 touchdowns. As a result Marshall is 9-1 and headed to its second straight MAC championship game. Pennington holds the Thundering Herd's record for career TD passes (78) and needs 301 yards to become its alltime leading passer. "Chad's a hell of a player," says Moss. "I think we made each other look good."

The picture wasn't always so rosy for Pennington. Though he passed for 2,445 yards and 15 touchdowns while leading Marshall to the Division I-AA championship game as a freshman in 1995, he was redshirted the following season after Eric Kresser, a senior transfer from Florida, narrowly won the starting job. The knocks against Pennington were his slight 6'3", 195-pound build and his lack of arm strength.

"In retrospect I'm glad the coaches did it, because it was the best football decision that was ever made for me," Pennington says. "But on game day I was a wreck. All I could do was stand on the sideline and watch. The day we won the I-AA national championship in 1996 was the best day of the year for me, not only because we finished 15-0 but also because it marked the beginning of the '97 season."

A broadcast-journalism major, Pennington carries a 3.75 GPA. His dream is to play in the NFL, and having grown an inch and added 25 pounds since his freshman year, he has persuaded at least one knowledgeable supporter. "I've seen NFL quarterbacks," says Moss, "and I think he can come in and play on this level right now."

B.J. Schecter

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Early Reveille at Oregon State  

Mike Riley is willing to try almost anything to end Oregon State's streak of 27 years without a winning season, the longest drought in the nation. So this year he broke with college football custom and implemented morning practices. "We're going out on a limb," says Riley, who's in his second year with the Beavers, "but I think it makes sense."

While other teams begin their workouts in the afternoon, when classes are over, the Beavers take the field from 8 to 10 a.m. and then hit the classroom. They return for film sessions and meetings in the early evening.

"Once we get the players awake, which takes about 20 minutes, we find they've got more energy in the morning," says Riley. "It also breaks up the day for them. It's not four straight hours of football, so you get better concentration."

Riley, 45, who served as an assistant at Southern Cal from 1992 to '96, says he got the idea from former Trojans basketball coach George Raveling, who borrowed it from his opposite number at Temple, John Chaney. In addition to taking advantage of the players' higher energy level, Riley says, morning practices help ensure that they eat a decent breakfast—nobody wants to run two hours of drills on an empty stomach—and make it to morning classes. Coaches like the schedule because they can break down tape in the afternoon, leaving evenings free to make recruiting calls. "The only problem is that the grass is always wet first thing in the morning," Riley says.

Before making the switch, Riley checked with Oregon State's academic services staff to make sure his players' class schedules could be adjusted to accommodate the practices. Then he had to sell his none-too-eager Beavers on the idea. "At first they hated getting up," Riley says, "but almost to a man, they've told me, 'Once you get going, it's great.'"

Riley says the morning workouts are an experiment that he'll evaluate after the season. The early practices weren't enough to break Oregon State's streak. After winning four of their first six games, the Beavers have lost four straight, including a 41-34 heartbreaker to UCLA last Saturday, to drop their record to 4-6 with one game left.

Marty Burns

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Tree Huggers vs. Tree Muggers  

This caper is equal parts surreal and arboreal: the case of the kidnapped Stanford Tree.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 17, someone broke into the Stanford Band Shak, the storage facility for the Cardinal marching band, and made off with the 10-foot-tall, 45-pound costume of the school mascot. Almost immediately campus police ruled out the Symbionese Liberation Army. Instead they looked across San Francisco Bay to Berkeley and hated Pac-10 rival Cal. "There is nothing about this that's a joke," said Stanford police captain Raoul Niemeyer, who was treating the prank as a felony. "You do the crime, you do the time."

Six days passed without a lead. Or a leaf. Law enforcement officials at both schools were stumped. Stanford Business School graduate Tim Harrington offered to pay a $5,000 "reward" to a local charity. Junior Chris Henderson, the debarked mascot, showed symptoms of an identity crisis by issuing a press release that stated, in part, "I am the Tree. Me." Cal chancellor Robert Berdahl set a midnight Oct. 28 deadline for the Tree's return, no questions asked; after that he would put Oski the Bear, the Cal mascot, under lair arrest as an act of good faith.

On Oct. 23 the costume's captors, using the name the Phoenix Five, delivered a letter to the Cal student newspaper, The Daily Californian, in which they promised to return the Tree unharmed before the 101st Big Game between the Cardinal and the Golden Bears, in Berkeley on Nov. 21. Enclosed with the letter was a photo of their uprooted hostage, blindfolded but unharmed.

A week later the group delivered the costume to Berdahl's office in exchange for amnesty. The Tree was returned to Palo Alto undamaged, but last Saturday during halftime of the Stanford-USC game, the Cardinal band used a tree shredder to destroy the stolen mascot because it had been "contaminated." A new Tree was unveiled, but it will have to watch its bark when it visits Berkeley. The last time the Big Game was played at Memorial Stadium, in 1996, Cal students stormed the field and literally tore the Tree costume limb from limb.

John Walters

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Extra Points: Big Man in The Big Easy  

The success of coach Tommy Bowden, who has guided Tulane to an 8-0 mark and a No. 14 ranking, bolsters the school's stature as the new cradle of coaches. Two other men who once led the Green Wave are coaching Top 25 teams. Larry Smith, who went 18-27 at Tulane from 1976 to '79, is 7-2 with 13th-ranked Missouri. Mack Brown, who had an 11-23 record in New Orleans from 1985 to '87, is 7-2 with 18th-ranked Texas....The eight schools who will desert the WAC to form the Mountain West Conference (SI, Nov. 9) are 18-8 against the schools they will be leaving behind.

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Hot List  

Rose Bowl
The granddaddy of them all is virtually assured the Big Ten champ now that Ohio State has lost. Dilemma: Invite Arizona as the opponent and keep the Pac-10 happy, or ask Notre Dame and score in the ratings?

Michigan State Injuries
Cornerback Amp Campbell's neck injury inspired a rout of Notre Dame. Defensive end Robaire Smith's broken leg inspired an upset of Ohio State. Will the Spartans run out of players before they run out of magic?

Los Alamitos High
Griffins alum Brad Melsby caught the 61-yard touchdown pass with 21 seconds left that gave UCLA its 41-34 win at Oregon State. Tony Hartley of Oregon, Melsby's teammate at the L.A.-area school, had 242 receiving yards and two TDs as the Ducks beat Washington 27-22.

Blane Morgan
Once known as just another military school option whiz, the Air Force quarterback threw first-half touchdowns of 54 and 74 yards to Dylan Newman in the Falcons' 35-7 victory at Army.

Kirk Johnson
After being shut out by Penn State in his '98 debut, Illinois's third starting quarterback of the season completed 20 of 27 passes in the Illini's 31-16 upset of Indiana.

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Fast Forward  

Wisconsin (9-0) at Michigan (7-2)
The winner clinches a share of the Big Ten title and, in the case of the eighth-ranked Badgers, the trip to the Rose Bowl. The Better Business Bureau already is adding phone lines: Five years ago, when the Badgers last won the conference, travel agents sold Wisconsin fans more trips to Pasadena than they had tickets to the game, which caused such a fracas that the California assembly held hearings on the matter.

Wisconsin ranks first in the nation in rushing defense. However, only one of the six Big Ten teams it has beaten ranks in the top 50 in rushing. Michigan, ranked 70th, has mastered only half of the traditional Big Ten running game: the cloud of dust. Still, the Wolverines will take advantage of playing at home and win—if only because a victory would take them one step closer to tormenting Ohio State again.

Nebraska (8-2) at Kansas State (9-0)
Fans of the No. 2 Wildcats have been heard taking victory over the Huskers for granted and warning that Kansas State's toughest test will be at Missouri the following week. The devil must be wearing long underwear, because hell surely has frozen over. Dress warmly and go with Kansas State.

Air Force (8-1) at Wyoming (8-1)
It's a shame the WAC's two best teams are in the Mountain Division, making this the true conference championship game. Ride 'em, Cowboys D.

North Carolina (4-4) at Virginia (7-2)
Tar Heels freshman quarterback Ronald Curry returns home to the school and the state he spurned. (Curry verbally committed to the Cavaliers, only to change his mind and sign with North Carolina.) The Cavs' victory should salve those hurt feelings.

Williams (7-0) at Amherst (5-2)
It's the 113th installment of the rivalry, and for the fifth straight year at least one of the two participants is undefeated. Amherst hasn't won in the past 11 tries. Make it 12.

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Issue date: November 16, 1998

 

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