- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 27, 2001

LINCOLN, Neb. Eric Crouch is the Big Red One.

Ask any player or coach the key to today's game between No. 2 Oklahoma (7-0) and No. 3 Nebraska (8-0), and he'll point to the Cornhuskers' senior quarterback.

"Without question, he's the nucleus and the key member in their offensive attack," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said this week. "He's got a hand in everything that happens in their offense."

If you bumped into Crouch amid the behemoths in the Nebraska locker room, you might find his status as the primary piston in the 'Huskers' devastating option combine hard to believe. He's listed in the Nebraska media guide as 6-foot-1, 200 pounds. Yeah, maybe in stiletto heels and a diving belt.

Many stars look larger than life in person; Crouch looks smaller almost frail.

He's far from it.

In his career, Crouch has missed just one start, playing through two shoulder injuries while rolling up a 32-5 record as the trigger man in the 'Huskers' option scheme. He has used his 4.45 speed and elusiveness to score more rushing touchdowns (55) than any other quarterback in NCAA history, running for 777 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. He's accounted for more yards in total offense (7,053) than any player in the school's legendary history, passing option maestro Tommie Frazier (1992-95) earlier this season. And he's managed to post such numbers despite being the marked man every time he steps on the field.

"Nobody's tougher," Nebraska offensive tackle Dave Volk said earlier this season. "Eric has taken a pounding over the years, but he always gets right back up and takes it to you again. We call him 'Scrap,' like scrap iron, because he don't look like much, but, man, is he tough."

So tough that last season during a game at Notre Dame, Volk recalls Crouch telling him to pop his dislocated shoulder back into place in the huddle.

"We all hear this nasty pop, and he never even stops calling the play," Volk said. "It was crazy."

What is truly crazy is the general lack of respect Crouch receives from both Nebraska fans and Heisman Trophy voters.

Disgruntled Cornhuskers faithful cite Crouch's 7-5 record against ranked teams as an indictment of his abilities. They are quick to note that predecessors Frazier and Scott Frost carried Nebraska to national championships, while the Crouch-led Cornhuskers have never even been to a national title game.

"I know that a national title is missing from my resume," Crouch said this week. "It's been a lifelong goal of mine. Here at Nebraska, it's been a goal that I think about daily."

As for Heisman voters, most mention Crouch only as an afterthought. Maybe it's because no pure option quarterback has won since Oregon State's Terry Baker in 1962. Heisman voters fancy gunslingers with gaudy passing statistics, not gritty option technicians unlikely to play in the NFL.

"If you look at the ways it's gone over the years, it seems very unlikely that an option quarterback would be able to win the Heisman," said Crouch, who has completed 65 of 112 passes (58 percent) this season for 986 yards and seven touchdowns. "That's fine. I want to go to Pasadena, not New York, at the end of the year."

Crouch can tentatively put both trips on his calendar if the Cornhuskers handle Oklahoma today in the most high-profile clash of the college season to date. The Sooners and Cornhuskers are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the BCS standings that determine which teams will meet for the national championship in the season-ending Rose Bowl (Jan. 3). And while the teams could meet again in the Big 12 title game (Dec. 1), today's game likely will eliminate the loser from the BCS picture.

"I'm very aware of what falls into place after this game," said Crouch, who had a subpar game in Norman last season, completing only 12 of 27 as Oklahoma scored 31 unanswered points en route to a 31-14 victory. "I think our offense is a little more versatile this season. We're going to try and run it, obviously, but we're a more effective passing team this year when that's what we've been given."

Chances are Crouch will have to demonstrate his ability to throw for Nebraska to win today. Stoops and Co. have said all week they will stack the line with option-busters like Butkus favorite Rocky Calmus and safety Roy Williams, forcing Crouch to prove he can beat them with his arm.

At least one former option maven thinks that strategy is likely to present Crouch with more opportunity than frustration.

"Eric is as good at running our system as anybody we've ever had," said Turner Gill, Nebraska's All-American turned quarterbacks coach. "He's been around long enough to make reads at the line and get us into the right play. If they want to spread themselves thin and come after him, he has the tools to pick them apart."

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