Three years ago Donovan McNabb brought to the Syracuse campus all the wisdom and maturity of his 17 years, which is to say he viewed his collegiate career as an extension of his carefree Chicago childhood. During football season McNabb played quarterback, as he had done at Mount Carmel High. During basketball season he played guard. The rest of the time he just played. "Donovan used to be a court jester," Syracuse quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers says. "He was happy-go-lucky, zip-a-dee-doo-dah, bumping bellies with the offensive linemen. Now he has work to do. Business is business."
And business is good, judging from the performance McNabb gave on Sunday in the Kickoff Classic, at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The fourth-year junior completed 11 of 14 passes for 211 yards and one touchdown and ran five times for 27 yards and another score as Syracuse embarrassed Wisconsin 34-0. What had been billed as a showcase of two top contenders for the Heisman Trophy came up one short. Wisconsin sophomore tailback Ron Dayne, who rushed for 1,863 yards last fall, struggled behind a line so young that Badgers offensive coordinator Brad Childress joked last week that he would have to remind the three redshirt freshman starters not to stand behind the bench with the scrubs. He might try reminding them not to stand around at the line of scrimmage. Dayne rushed for 46 yards on 13 carries before the recurrence of a stinger in his right shoulder forced him to sit out much of the second half.
Dayne began the day as the most highly touted rusher in Division I-A and ended it as the third-best ground gainer on the field. Syracuse junior fullback Rob Konrad bulled for 76 yards and a touchdown on only eight carries, while junior tailback Kyle McIntosh skittered for 66 yards on 11 carries. But the balance of the Syracuse offense, which finished with 227 yards on the ground and 243 passing, seemed to emanate from McNabb. "When you see someone as confident as Donovan is and watch the way he carries himself," McIntosh says, "it really calms the whole team down."
Heisman talk in August is like anything available at the concession stand—fun to chew on but without real substance. That said, McNabb's performance not only was good, it was good for you, especially if you're a long-suffering fan of Syracuse football. McNabb showed that he is ready to lead his teammates to greatness if they would finally like to go there. Or, as he said to his classmates last January, "I want better than 9-3," which is where the Orangemen finished last season after getting off to a dismal 0-2 start.
McNabb proved last spring how badly he wants to win by announcing that he no longer would play basketball for coach Jim Boeheim. Though McNabb never played a lot of minutes for Syracuse, he wasn't given a uniform merely to fulfill a recruiting promise made by football coach Paul Pasqualoni. Last Feb. 8 McNabb came off the bench to score 10 points and grab six rebounds to help the Orangemen to a 77-74 win over archrival Georgetown.
But after long talks with his father, Samuel, and with Rogers, McNabb decided to become a full-time football player. "I don't know if it paid off," McNabb says. "My thing right now is football and trying to make a future."
He spent his summer alternating between the film room and the weight room, where he added 30 pounds to his bench press. He also improved his quickness and his speed (he now runs the 40 in 4.52) and let his teammates know how serious he had become about football, 'if somebody's loafing, he gets on their butt," center Cory Bowen says. "He'll get in their face and say, 'Let's pick it up.' Last year he felt he was just one of the younger guys. Now he feels it's his team."
McNabb, still two months shy of 21, agrees. "I am more confident," he says. "I'm older. I'm more mature. It's my third year. I know what I need to do, and I know what the guys around me need to do." In fact, Rogers worried before Sunday's game that McNabb was being too quiet. But what the coach feared was a case of nerves proved to be determination. McNabb removed all doubt when he stood in the pocket, pumped left, flushed into the right flat and found senior wideout Darryl Daniel alone on the right sideline for 39 yards in the second quarter. And when he ran the option for a 21-yard score behind Konrad. And once again when he threw a 25-yard sideline bullet to sophomore wide-out Quinton Spotwood in the third quarter.
The offense isn't all there is to like about this Syracuse team. Senior strong safety Tebucky Jones, a tailback the past three years, had five tackles and showed he still has a nose for the ball. "It feels real good to hit people instead of being a target," Jones said. "When a running back makes a cut, I know where he is going." The Syracuse defense, led by fifth-year linebacker Antwaune Ponds, allowed only three rushing first downs and 60 yards on the ground to a Wisconsin team that has had four backs gain 1,000 yards in the past four seasons.
The most appealing thing about the Orangemen was that they played well from the start. It had been four years since Syracuse scored a touchdown in the first half of its opener. The kickoff return team rectified that in 16 seconds, though not without a flashback to the Orangemen's old ways. Senior Jim Turner, one of two deep men, yelled, "Me! Me! Me!" as the ball came toward him. Junior Kevin Johnson got there first. "I'm the call man. He didn't hear me," Turner said later with a chuckle. "If he had dropped it, it would have been a big deal." As Johnson caught the ball, Turner bumped into him, which was as close as anyone came to making a tackle. Johnson weaved to the left sideline and went 89 yards for the touchdown.