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College Football
Ivan Maisel
December 03, 2001
Fresh LegsAfter learning the ropes early, five first-year backs broke out in the season's second half
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December 03, 2001

College Football

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That is the reason why the Gator Bowl, which matches ACC and Big East teams, has chosen Virginia Tech, the third place team in the Big East, to play Florida State over second-place Syracuse. "Like it or not there is an economic element to our decision," said Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett on Monday.

In addition to the fear-of-flying factor, the postponement of Sept. 15 games, many of which were rescheduled for last Saturday and this weekend, leaves less time for fans to make airline reservations and get low-priced tickets. The Las Vegas Bowl, which last season invited Arkansas of the SEC, this year hopes to match USC and Utah because both Los Angeles and Salt Lake City are within driving distance. "Some bowls are sold out no matter whom they invite," says Tina Kunzer-Murphy, executive director of the Las Vegas Bowl, "but it makes sense for us to get teams that can travel here easily."

Buckeyes Help Illini
Big Ten Title, Without Roses

After his team defeated Northwestern 34-28 on Thanksgiving to finish 10-1 (7-1 in the Big Ten), Illinois coach Ron Turner gave his players the rest of the holiday weekend off. That, however, didn't mean the Illini got to relax. Last Saturday they discovered the agony of watching on television those who would decide their fate. Only with an Ohio State victory over Michigan would they win the conference championship, their first since 1990, and earn a berth in a BCS bowl.

The stakes caused grown men to do strange things. Former Michigan lineman Jerry Schumacher and his brother-in-law, former Wolverines assistant coach Frank Maloney, rooted for the Buckeyes. That's because Jerry's son, Jerry Jr., is a starting linebacker for Illinois. Still, Jerry Sr. had his limits. "My dad wouldn't allow anything with Ohio State on it in the house," Jerry Jr. said on Sunday.

The Illini watched with joy as the Buckeyes raced to a 23-0 halftime lead, sweated out a Michigan comeback to pull within 26-20 in the final three minutes and celebrated when Ohio State prevailed. The outcome helped Illinois complete a journey that began at the bottom of the Big Ten in 1997, when the Illini went 0-11 in Turner's first season. In '99 they improved to 8-4 before falling back to 5-6 last year. This season, with a revamped, more aggressive defense designed by new coordinator Mike Cassity, Illinois increased its interceptions from 12 in 2000 to 18 and its sacks from 18 to 39. On offense the leadership and intelligence provided by senior quarterback Kurt Kittner (2,994 yards throwing and 23 touchdown passes) were crucial to the Illini.

"People look at Kurt's completion percentage [55-3]," Turner says. "We throw downfield a lot. I haven't charted it lately, but in the first four games, when he completed 52 percent, we had 16 drops and he had 12 throwaways. He's made his mistakes, but the measure of a quarterback is winning. Twice we had a lead on the road and lost it, and both times he brought us back to win."

Kittner watched the Ohio State victory over Michigan with friends at a sports bar in downtown Chicago. "You couldn't write a better book," says Kittner of his college career. Thrust into the starting lineup as a freshman, he is the second-leading Illini passer of all time. However, he thinks the epilogue needs some editing. Because the Rose Bowl is the site of the national championship game, the Illini will most likely play in the Fiesta, Sugar or Orange bowl. "Everyone's goal in the Big Ten is to get to the Rose Bowl," Kittner says. "It kind of stinks, but we'll get over it."

North Texas Turnaround
Five Wins and a Bowl Berth

Though Maryland and Illinois might come to mind, the most improbable bowl team of 2001 is North Texas—the Sun Belt champion and winner of the conference's automatic berth in the inaugural New Orleans Bowl. Even if the Mean Green (5-5) drops its regular-season finale, a non-conference game at Troy State this Saturday, and thus fail to reach the NCAA minimum of six wins for a bowl appearance, they'll still go to the bowl by virtue of being the Sun Belt champion. "Because we're conference champions, these kids are very deserving," says Mean Green coach Darrell Dickey, a former Kansas State quarterback who led the Wildcats to their first bowl, the Independence, in 1982.

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