- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Marshall's Lord Byron has only one chance to author a Heisman-worthy masterpiece.

Senior quarterback and District native Byron Leftwich leads the 16th-ranked Thundering Herd into Blacksburg tomorrow night to face No.11 Virginia Tech. If Leftwich harbors any delusions about hoisting the Heisman Trophy, he had better lift his team to an upset victory at Lane Stadium.

"I like our chances," the H.D. Woodson High School graduate said of the nationally televised game against the Hokies (2-0). "I hate to say that, but I like our chances because I feel as though we've got a lot of great athletes."

Some have suggested that Leftwich might be the best athlete in the college game this season. He has the body of Daunte Culpepper at 6-foot-6, 240 pounds and a right arm almost as accurate as it is powerful (75 yards flat-footed). And although nobody is likely to mistake him for Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick or Doug Flutie, Leftwich certainly is more mobile than fellow Heisman candidates Ken Dorsey (Miami) and Rex Grossman (Florida).

Last season he led the Thundering Herd to an 11-2 record by throwing for 4,132 yards, 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He is the NCAA's active leader in both career passing yardage (8,104) and touchdown passes (63). Every expert projects him to be one of the top five players in next year's NFL Draft. And many think he's worthy of the top pick.

"He's certainly in the mix," draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said last month. "He is a better NFL prospect than former Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington, a first-round pick of the New York Jets in 2000."

In fact, there seems to be just one thing missing from Leftwich's Heisman resume a victory over a major conference opponent. Fresno State's David Carr claimed three such scalps last season (Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin) en route to a fifth-place finish in the Heisman. But Leftwich entered his senior year 0-3 against the major powers, passing for less than 300 yards each time in road losses to Michigan State, North Carolina and Florida over the last two seasons.

Leftwich is hoping to change that history tomorrow against the Hokies. And because Tech is the only major conference team on Marshall's schedule, it isn't just the biggest game of his senior season; it might as well be the only game.

Nobody cares what Leftwich did against overmatched Appalachian State in Marshall's opener (469 yards and four touchdowns). And Heisman voters aren't likely to care what he does during the Thundering Herd's conference season against the Mid-American Conference, with its collection of Michigan directionals and Ohio schools not located in Columbus.

"People said the same thing about Randy Moss when he put up big numbers in the MAC, and he's the best receiver in the NFL," Marshall coach Bob Pruett said in defense of his league. "You can't just discount his accomplishments in this league. He's the best quarterback in the college game, period."

Fine, then he shouldn't have any trouble showing that against Virginia Tech. As for the Moss analogy, it's apples and oranges, coach. Moss was the most highly prized recruit in the country as a high school senior. He was thrown out of Notre Dame and Florida State before he washed up on Pruett's doorstep. Leftwich didn't even have a major conference scholarship offer coming out of Woodson. Like Pennington, who finished fifth in the 1999 Heisman voting, he's a true dark horse for the stiff-arming statue with a lot left to prove.

And tomorrow night he gets his one and only Heisman audition. This is a one-plank campaign beat Virginia Tech or beat it.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you it's going to be easy, but that's why we play the game," Leftwich said at his weekly postgame news conference last Saturday. "In the first quarter, those [Virginia Tech defensive] guys are going to be blowing snot-bubbles out their noses, so you want to do something to quiet the crowd down. It's going to be fun to see how it goes."

A Sept.1 trip to Blacksburg wasn't much fun for LSU quarterback Matt Mauck or the Tigers' Heisman-hyped tailback, LaBrandon Toefield. Virginia Tech's defense sacked Mauck four times, hassled him into a miserable afternoon (15 of 34 for 134 yards), held Toefield to a paltry 46 rushing yards and carried the Hokies to a 26-8 victory over then-No.14 LSU.

"I watched the LSU film, and they had some guys open," Leftwich said somewhat cavalierly. "They just didn't get them the ball."

Completing passes against the Tech defense might be even tougher tomorrow when top cover corner Ronyell Whitaker rejoins the Hokies after a two-game suspension. Frankly, Leftwich doesn't have any excuses, and he'll be the first to admit it. He has three 1,000-yard receivers back from last season (Josh Davis, Darius Watts and Denero Marriott) and one of the top offensive tackle tandems in the nation in Nate McPeek (6-5, 321 pounds) and Steve Sciullo (6-6, 341). The pieces are all in place for an upset and a bold Heisman statement.

Yet some folks, both Pruett and numerous members of the media, are already screaming that Leftwich shouldn't be judged by this game alone. Why not? Heisman campaigns are almost always based on one or two pivotal games. Just ask Grossman, who thanks to Miami is now the man formerly known as the Heisman favorite. Shoot, Grossman saw his Heisman hopes dashed by one campaign-crippling play, much less a whole game.

If Leftwich lights up the Hokies tomorrow and leads the Thundering Herd to victory, he'll get his due from the voters. Could he possibly swipe the bronze boy? It's possible. After all, poor performances by Grossman and Dorsey last week left a huge vacuum in the favorites department.

But history says he won't win the Heisman. And it's not because the voters have conspired to blackball mid-major players. It's because most mid-major players are just that.

If Leftwich goes 0-4 tonight, he won't deserve a Heisman peep. That's not unfair. It's life in the same college football universe that brings us the BCS.

"We've got a good team here," Leftwich said. "Some people want to believe it and some don't, but we'll find out."

And we'll find out all we need to know.


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