What a Rush
Peterson ran wild, but Oregon's Jonathan Stewart did too in the Ducks'
improbable comeback win
running back Adrian Peterson walked, stone-faced, off the field at Oregon's
Autzen Stadium last Saturday, his Ducks counterpart, sophomore Jonathan
Stewart, was being swept in the opposite direction by the tide of Oregon
students giddy about their team's improbable 34--33 victory over the Sooners.
Stewart, who wears the same number, 28, and runs with a blend of power, speed
and balance similar to Peterson's, never came close to the Oklahoma star in the
bedlam. That was a shame, because on so-called Separation Saturday, Stewart
proved that there's not much that separates the two rushers.
Oklahoma played the most entertaining game of the season to date, complete with
a chaotic finish that included two touchdowns, a successful onside kick and, on
the game's final play, a blocked field goal by the Ducks (as well as a pair of
highly questionable referees' calls that went in their favor), all in the final
1:12. But none of that could overshadow the virtuoso performances by Stewart
and Peterson. It appeared that Peterson's brilliant fourth quarter, in which he
rushed for 145 yards (he finished with 211 yards and a touchdown on 34
carries), would be enough to lead the Sooners to victory. Stewart played only a
minor part in the wild final minutes, in which Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon
ran for one touchdown and threw for another 46 seconds later, but without
Stewart's 23 carries for 144 yards and a touchdown, the Ducks would never have
been in position for their dramatic comeback.
Stewart was rated
the top running back in the country by some recruiting services when he came
out of Timberline High in Lacey, Wash., in 2005 and spurned schools such as USC
and Tennessee to stay close to home. But until Saturday his bursts of
brilliance had always been tempered by signs of fragility, leading to questions
about his willingness to play with pain. A case in point: He rushed for 168
yards in the Ducks' opening-game win over Stanford, then carried only once last
week against Fresno State because of a sprained right ankle.
But Stewart, who
is 5'11" and weighs 234 pounds, was a workhorse against the Sooners (2--1),
bulling his way between the tackles as well as turning the corner on sweeps,
even though he said after the game that the ankle was far from healed. "I
appreciate the way he sucked it up today and toughed it out for the team,"
said Ducks coach Mike Bellotti, whose son Luke executed the onside kick that
set up Oregon's winning touchdown. "Jonathan can be the same type of player
[as Peterson]." Having seen the Sooners' standout, a 6'2", 218-pound
junior, up close may help Stewart reach that level. "He hits the hole so
fast, it's unbelievable," Stewart says.
performance against the Ducks was symbolic of his career to date: undeniably
impressive, at times even breathtaking, but not entirely satisfying. He set a
freshman record with 1,925 rushing yards in 2004 and finished second in the
Heisman voting, but he was limited to 82 yards on 25 carries in a crushing loss
to USC in the national championship game. Last season opposing defenses,
unafraid of Sooners freshman quarterback Rhett Bomar's passing, stacked the
line of scrimmage to stop Peterson. Battling leg injuries, he ran for 1,108
yards, and Oklahoma finished a disappointing 8--4. Now Peterson has an even
bigger burden since Bomar was booted off the team in August after accepting
money illegally for a no-show summer job. "We're asking a lot of AD,"
said Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson, who shifted over from wide receiver
when Bomar left. "You ask great players to do great things."
But no matter how
well Peterson plays, it rarely seems to be enough. Had the Sooners held on to
win on Saturday, his outstanding fourth quarter would have stood as a classic
example of a star carrying his team to victory. Instead, Oklahoma coach Bob
Stoops was asked afterward if he thought Peterson had waited until the fourth
quarter to shift into high gear. The coach bristled at the suggestion.
"He's always determined," Stoops said. "But I guess that when you
have the talent of an Adrian Peterson, people always want more."
is trying to deliver more, warming to the role of the Sooners' unquestioned
leader. He returned kickoffs on Saturday for the first time in his career, and
as he walked off the field before Oklahoma's field goal attempt with two
seconds left, he pulled kicker Garrett Hartley aside for a pep talk. "I
told him it was just like practice," Peterson said. "No
But there was
pressure, of course, just as there is pressure on Peterson to keep the Sooners
in the hunt for the Big 12 title and make a serious run at the Heisman. With
stardom comes the burden of great, even unfair demands. If Stewart continues to
play the way he did against the Sooners, he will learn that soon enough.