In an era when most coaches are wooing players with promises of pro-style offenses and four-receiver sets, Rice's Ken Hatfield arrived in Houston four years ago, took a hard look at what he had to work with—middling facilities, rigorous academic standards, a forbidding history of two or fewer wins in 11 of the previous 20 seasons, the smallest student body in Division I-A (2,600) and an inability to recruit the Peyton Mannings of the world—and reverted to the formula he used at Air Force from 1978 to '83. He beat the bushes for smallish offensive linemen who can pull and run all night, and he installed a wishbone attack that starts and ends with a shrewd quarterback like Nelson, a 5'11" daredevil from Lewisville, Texas, whose high school experience in an option system prepared him well for his role at Rice. "I once went four games in high school without attempting a pass," Nelson proudly says.
He didn't complete his one official attempt against the Lobos, and the Owls finished the game with zero passing yards. But as Nelson says, why bother? Rice had 384 yards on the ground against New Mexico to remain the No. 2 rushing offense in the nation.
Like the Lobos, the 5-2 Owls are seeking a bowl berth for the first time since 1961. The toughest part of the schedule is behind Rice, and the rest of the WAC is still grasping for an antidote to its wishbone. Rather than craving to be something they're not, Owls players are content to stick to what they're good at—nothing less, nothing more.
"Quarterbacks like Brett Favre or John Elway always say they know a pass is perfect the moment it leaves their hands," Nelson says. "That's the way I feel when I make the perfect pitch to Michael or Benji or one of our other backs. The moment it leaves my hand, I know when we're going to break one. Sometimes it feels like this offense can't be stopped."
A Lion-sized Letdown
The number of unbeaten teams shrank from 13 to eight when Air Force, Auburn, Michigan State, New Mexico and Texas A&M lost last Saturday. However, the national-title contender with the most questions to answer is undefeated Penn State. Though the Nittany Lions scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to scratch out a 16-15 victory over Minnesota, their offense has suddenly become shaky.
Fullback Aaron Harris suffered an apparent season-ending knee injury in the second quarter. Harris, who rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown in the 31-27 defeat of Ohio State the week before, provided tailbacklike speed as a complement to the running of Curtis Enis. "Harris is a big, big loss," Penn State coach Joe Paterno says. "We're losing a quality back."
Quarterback Mike McQueary endured his second straight mediocre game, completing six of 16 passes and committing three turnovers. Some of McQueary's shortcomings may have been the result of a hard tackle in the first period. After the game he said he had had a severe headache and trouble seeing out of his right eye during the last three quarters, yet he continued to play, which shows that his decision-making, supposedly his strong suit, may not be so strong after all.
The Nittany Lions are idle this week, which should help new fullback Anthony Cleary adjust and give McQueary time to clear his head. But Penn State's vulnerability has made it increasingly likely that the Orange Bowl, not the Rose Bowl, will produce this year's national champion. Nebraska replaced Penn State atop both polls. Who in the weak Big 12 can beat the Huskers?