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THERE ARE days when Michigan State senior running back Javon Ringer is embarrassed by the attention that comes with being a Heisman Trophy candidate. And it is on those days that Ken Mannie, the Spartans' strength and conditioning coach, is more than happy to offer some perspective. "I tell him, 'If you want to be left alone, all you have to do is go out and have a 30-yard day,'" says Mannie. "He'll look back at me, and I can see it in his eyes: That's not going to happen."
Nevertheless, at halftime of Michigan State's 16--13 homecoming win over Iowa last Saturday such an un-Heisman-worthy outing seemed likely. Often stacking nine defenders near the line of scrimmage, the Hawkeyes sold out to stop Ringer, who entered the game averaging 179.4 yards, second in the country. With Iowa's standout defensive tackles, Mitch King and Matt Kroul, shutting off the interior rushing lanes, Ringer often had to bounce outside, where he was repeatedly gang-tackled for minimal gains. He ran for only 49 yards through the first three quarters and was being seriously outplayed by Iowa's Shonn Greene, who would pile up 157 yards on 30 rushes.
It wasn't until Ringer's 21st carry that he finally shook loose, skipping around right end and juking a safety to the ground en route to a 29-yard pickup. He finished with 25 rushes for 91 yards. "Javon's at his best in the fourth quarter," says Dan Enos, the Spartans' running backs coach. "He's one of the fiercest competitors I've ever been around."
The 5'9", 206-pound Ringer so loves a challenge that he'll stop by Mannie's office to see how his weightlifting scores are stacking up. If Ringer feels somebody has closed the gap too much, he'll submit to a new test on the spot. "When I go over [his] numbers with pro scouts, their eyes just start to bulge," says Mannie, adding that Ringer's 620-pound squat and 420-pound bench-press marks are the norms for linemen who outweigh him by 100 pounds. Spartans coaches often find themselves telling Ringer to take it easy. After he tore his right MCL five games into the 2006 season—an injury that doctors told him would sideline him for the rest of the year—he rehabbed so hard that he missed just four weeks. "A lot of people don't want to do the work it takes to be the best," says Ringer. "The pain. The burn. Those are things I enjoy. Once they're gone, I feel like I've accomplished something."
Ringer's masochism has been a boon to Michigan State (5--1), which is off to a 2--0 start in the Big Ten. But do the Spartans have enough balance to win a conference title? Ringer's 212 carries lead the nation, and he has scored 12 of his team's 19 touchdowns. The Hawkeyes hoped that by stopping Ringer they could put the onus on Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer, but the steady fifth-year senior picked them apart for 184 yards and a TD (which began with a play-action fake to Ringer).
So even if the aerial attack hasn't broken games open—Michigan State failed to reach pay dirt on three other trips inside the red zone—it seems capable of at least keeping defenses honest. In the unsettled Big Ten, that may turn out to be enough. "Javon's the key to our whole offense," says Hoyer. "He makes us hard to stop."
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