CNNSI.com 2002 College Bowls


 

The unstoppables?

Fiesta key lies in figuring out ways to slow McGahee, Clarett

Posted: Monday December 30, 2002 2:59 AM
Updated: Monday December 30, 2002 1:20 PM
  Willis McGahee Willis McGahee finished fourth in this year's Heisman voting. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

By Stewart Mandel, CNNSI.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Two of the nation's most gifted tailbacks take to the field Friday at the Fiesta Bowl.

In the meantime, two sets of defenses are working furiously trying to figure out how to stop them.

Or at least come close.

"We want to slow down Willis McGahee," said Ohio State linebacker Matt Wilhelm. "You really can't stop him" -- as 12 previous Miami opponents have found out.

The Buckeyes, however, are as qualified as anyone.

No matter the opponent, OSU defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio emphasizes stopping the run first, and it's paid off in the form of the nation's fourth-ranked rush defense (77.8 yards per game). That plan won't change against Miami, even with the threat of a potent passing game from Ken Dorsey.

"When we've had our greatest success, we've stopped the run, made it one-dimensional," Dantonio said. "If they're able to run the football on us, then they're able to pass the ball more effectively."

Monday, Dec. 31, 2002 -- Five days to kickoff
"The one that sticks out in my mind the most is Dan Klecko from Temple University. Me and [Martin] Bibla used to pinch his ass and tell him he's got the prettiest eyes in the world."
-- Miami center and team clown Brett Romberg on his most memorable in-game prank.
161-2 -- Miami's record since 1985 when entering the fourth quarter with the lead.
Reminders of which company sponsors the Fiesta Bowl are everywhere in Tempe -- and they start before you even land. For west-bound travelers, Sun Devil Stadium appears out the left side of the plane on the descent into Sky Harbor International Airport, and on the side of the stadium visible from the sky is a 42-by-175-foot Tostito's sign that's impossible to miss. If one were to sleep through that part, though, they can still wake up in time to see the Tostito's signage in the airport and the streets of downtown Tempe, or, the tables full of Tostito's products in the lobby of the media hotel.
Why don't more teams utilize receivers as defensive backs the way Ohio State has Chris Gamble? The speedster began playing with almost no knowledge of the defense and only abbreviated lessons in technique yet has four interceptions, three of them game-breaking.
Quarterbacks
Ken Dorsey
The school's record-holder in nearly every career passing category and 38-1 as a starter, he knows how to read defenses and will likely look to exploit young OSU cornerback Dustin Fox.
Craig Krenzel
The nation's seventh-most efficient passer and 14-0 as a starter, he's also deceivingly mobile, rushing for 276 yards, and likely will call his own number a few times.
Running Backs
Willis McGahee
A year after being relegated to a blocking role as a fill-in fullback at the Rose Bowl, McGahee is arguably the nation's top tailback and has been held below 100 yards only twice.
Maurice Clarett
Quite possibly the sport's most impressive true freshman runner in 20 years, he ran for 230 yards against a Top 10 Washington State team and ignited the OSU offense against Michigan.

The Hurricanes have not had as much success against the run, allowing 171.4 yards per contest, including 189 by Florida State's Greg Jones, 175 from West Virginia's Avon Cobourne and 118 for Pittsburgh's Brandon Miree.

Ohio State freshman Maurice Clarett could be more dangerous than any of them.

But Miami has a secret weapon in preparing for him: Frank Gore. The 5-foot-10, 196-pound sophomore, who averaged a staggering 9.1 yards per carry as a freshman reserve but is redshirting this season following an ACL tear last spring, is emulating Clarett on the scout team during bowl practices.

"Most people don't have anyone near that, so you don't truly see a guy like Clarett until after the first quarter when he's ripped you pretty good," Miami head coach Larry Coker said. "They're very similar size-wise, and in speed."

In addition to a strong defensive line, Ohio State's success against the run can be attributed largely to two All-Americans, Wilhelm and safety Mike Doss. The pair has a knack for sensing where the runner is going, swarm to the ball and rarely miss a tackle.

Whether they'll be able to do the same against McGahee, he of 140.5 yards per game and 27 touchdowns, not to mention the nation's most dominant offensive line, remains to be seen. But the model Buckeyes defenders will cite as evidence is Penn State.

The Nittany Lions rolled into Columbus on Oct. 26 with the nation's eventual No. 1 rusher, Larry Johnson, plus talented quarterback Zack Mills and dangerous receiver Bryant Johnson.

They left with all of seven points and 179 total yards.

"They [Miami] haven't played a run defense like ours," safety Donnie Nickey said.

Coker would beg to differ, citing Florida State and Pittsburgh as having tough run defenses on their own right, but acknowledges things won't exactly be easy.

"The thing I want them to understand is not to be frustrated, not to get impatient, because it's probably not going to be touchdown right, touchdown left," he said.

The Buckeyes know that feeling. Their offense hasn't been nearly as prolific as Miami's when it comes to getting in the end zone. But they do have Clarett, who, when healthy, ran for 1,190 yards despite missing all or part of five games.

Whereas McGahee relies more on pure speed and strength, Clarett is an elusive scatback with tremendous vision. Chances are he will get through the line more often than not, so the onus will be on linebackers D.J. Williams and Jonathan Vilma from wrapping him up before he springs into the backfield.

"He is a guy who, if he can run the ball on us and make first downs, they will be in a position to score touchdowns or score with their great field-goal kicker," said Coker. "It's going to be a big challenge."

Based purely on the stats, it would seem the Buckeyes' run defense is more capable of limiting McGahee than the 'Canes are against Clarett. But Miami's extraordinary balance throws a wrench into the equation. Whereas OSU will be forced to play zone and have guys like Doss and Wilhelm often defend receivers like tight end Kellen Winslow, Miami can afford to play straight man against the Buckeyes' two receivers and stuff the box against the run.

"That first quarter is going to be a real feel-out time," said Wilhelm. "Offensively and defensively, reading each other's game plans on down and distance and really getting a feel for their speed."

So, just who will win this much-anticipated battle of the backs?

Depends on who you ask.

"Reminds me a lot of Maurice Clarett," Nickey said of McGahee. "We practice against him every day, so I think we'll be prepared."

"He's a pretty good back, but he isn't that fast," Gore said of Clarett. "If our defense can stop me, it should be able to stop anybody."

 
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