- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 14, 2002

COLUMBUS, Ohio Washington State quarterback Jason Gesser doesn't have the arm strength or size of Marshall's Byron Leftwich. He doesn't have the touch or timing of Florida's Rex Grossman. And he doesn't have the work ethic and film-study obsession of Miami's Ken Dorsey. But what the Cougars' senior possesses in perhaps greater quantities than any of these fellow Heisman Trophy hopefuls is instinct and guts.
"Gesser is a gamer," said Washington State coach Mike Price of the player who will lead the 10th-ranked Cougars (2-0) against No.6 Ohio State in Columbus today. "He might not have the best physical tools out there, but he's shrewd, brassy guy. He reminds me a little of Fran Tarkenton. He's not real conventional, but he'll find a way to beat you."
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder parlayed his improvisational skills into a 10-2 record for Washington State last season while leading the Pac-10 in passing (3,010 yards), touchdowns (26) and total offense (257.5 yards per game). That's why the Cougars are favored to win their first league title since 1997 this season, and Gesser's name appears on everybody's Heisman short list. No game will be more pivotal to that second campaign than today's showdown with the Buckeyes (2-0) in front of a national TV audience at scarlet and gray-festooned Ohio Stadium.
"It's a cool matchup, but we can't get caught up in the situation of saying, 'Oh, it's Ohio State. Oh, it's the Horseshoe with 100,000 people. Oh, it's nationally televised,'" Gesser said Tuesday. "Whatever. It's 11 on 11 those are the only numbers that count. We can't play like it's the biggest game of our lives, because it's not."
The nonchalant response is typical for the Honolulu native, who once seriously told reporters that the toughest adjustment he had to make between high school and college was wearing shoes. If the Heisman were based primarily on personality, you'd have to fancy Gesser's chances.
He absolutely oozes the stereotypical Hawaiian surfer's duality. Off the field or out of the surf, Gesser is incredibly mellow, almost aggressively indifferent. But put him under center or on a board, and he becomes fearless, bordering on recklessly assertive.
Gesser's numbers as a pure passer are superb. In part thanks to Price's wide-open scheme, he's almost certain to eclipse former Washington State standouts Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf, Mark Rypien, Timm Rosenbach and Jack Thompson. But it's Gesser's uncanny ability as a scrambling threat that makes the Cougars so difficult to defense. Last season he rushed for 350 yards.
Gesser is almost always the slowest non-lineman on the field. And he's routinely the smallest player present. But neither fact has ever deterred him from scrambling or curbed his lust for contact.
"He knows we want him to sit back in the pocket and go through his progressions, but he really loves to tuck it and take off," said Price. "He's been knocked out of three games over the last two years, and he still hasn't figured out how to slide. He just has a linebacker's mentality. It gives me a coronary every time he starts scrambling around. But at the same time, it's that attitude that makes him special."
Said Gesser on the subject: "I'd rather sit back there and let the ball go, dude. But if there's nothing there, it's my responsibility to create something. Let's put it this way: After you've faced a 20-foot breaker on the North Shore, seeing a 6-foot, 300-pound D-tackle bearing down on you just doesn't scare you like maybe it should."
Ohio State would love to see Gesser in full fearless mode this afternoon.
"Gesser likes to move around, but where they can really hurt you is with those big receivers," said Ohio State's All-American safety Mike Doss earlier this week. "You'd rather have [Gesser] scrambling than one of those guys running loose."
"Those guys" are Washington State's devastating trio of wideouts: Mike Bush, Devard Darling and Jerome Riley.
Bush, a 6-6 two-sport star who averaged more than 10 points for Washington State's basketball team last season, presents obvious matchup problems for any team in the nation. Last week in a 49-14 rout of Idaho, Bush caught four balls for 108 yards and a touchdown, torturing the Vandals with his size.
Darling (6-3, 205), who transferred from Florida State after his twin brother, Devaughn, died of heat exhaustion and dehydration two years ago, is the best athlete on the team and leads the Cougars in receptions (11), yards (117) and touchdown catches (three) through two games. Riley, a senior who is listed as doubtful for today's game after pulling a hamstring last week, is the team's burner.
"They have some serious athletes," said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. "But it all starts with Gesser. Everything runs through him, and he's very efficient in their system."
Efficient enough to win the Heisman? It's doubtful, given the limited national exposure of the Pacific Northwest. But Gesser is certainly efficient enough to give both Price and the Buckeyes a scare this afternoon.
"I'm just going to do my thing," said Gesser, who has no intention of ever sliding at Ohio Stadium. "Not in front of that many people, man. Coach will get over it. He's as excited as I am to see if we can match up with them."


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