- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 16, 2004

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The Heisman Trophy is Kyle Orton’s to lose.

Purdue’s senior slinger is atop every major Heisman poll in the nation. And if the fifth-ranked Boilermakers (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) keep winning, Orton will walk away with the bronze bauble.

How can anyone so definitively dismiss Oklahoma superfrosh Adrian Peterson and USC’s talented tandem of quarterback Matt Leinart and versatile wonder Reggie Bush?

Easily. None of the other major players in the Heisman fray can touch Orton’s combination of national exposure and statistical dominance.

Not only is Peterson a freshman, the Sooners’ top test of the regular season — last week’s matchup with Texas — is behind them. The recent collapse of Big 12 power programs Kansas State, Nebraska and Texas A&M; has devalued the remainder of Oklahoma’s schedule, and there’s only one ranked team remaining on the Sooners’ slate, No. 16 Oklahoma State. For the most part, the Heisman is won on big-game performances, and Peterson simply doesn’t have enough chances left to showcase his skills.

To a slightly lesser extent, the same can be said of both Leinart and Bush, both of whom were upstaged by Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the Trojans’ only must-watch tilt of the season last week. Both have another mini-audition today against undefeated Arizona State, a game that isn’t even being shown nationally. But even under the best of circumstances, the Trojan tandem has to split the spotlight, statistical accolades and likely the West Coast Heisman ballot in a balanced offense.

Orton faces none of these hurdles.

Starting with today’s game against No. 10 Wisconsin (6-0, 3-0) at Ross-Ade Stadium, Orton has three more auditions against ranked teams in nationally televised games; home games follow next week against No. 14 Michigan and Nov. 13 against No. 25 Ohio State.

Unlike his challengers, Orton already has a preponderance of statistical evidence in his favor. In five games this season, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback has completed 119 of 172 passes (69.2 percent) for 1,642 yards, 18 touchdowns and only two interceptions, numbers that rank him first among Division I-A quarterbacks in scoring tosses and second in total yardage and passing efficiency (181.6). His masterpiece to date was a 385-yard, four-touchdown vivisection of Notre Dame in Purdue’s 41-16 annihilation of the Irish two weeks ago in South Bend. Even cable-challenged fans were privy to that performance courtesy of NBC’s slavish devotion to the Golden Domers.

Today, Orton and Co. will get to unleash their aerial antics on the Badgers, who amp up the matchup by bringing the nation’s No. 1 defense (198.3 yards) to West Lafayette to face the nation’s No. 3 offense (509.0).

“I can’t wait to see who blinks first,” Orton said. “You have to love a strength-on-strength game. We haven’t seen a defense yet this season with this much talent all over the field.”

That talent did little to slow the Boilermakers last season, when Orton connected on 38 of 55 passes for 411 yards in leading Purdue to a 26-23 victory in Madison. That version of Orton and the Purdue offense was outstanding. But this season’s version is exquisite. For one, Orton has a better overall corps of receivers.

He has continued his synergy with senior wideout Taylor Stubblefield, who now owns the Big Ten record for career receptions (262). But this season has seen the emergence of sophomore Kyle Ingraham, freshman Dorien Bryant and tight end Charles Davis. Ingraham is the jewel of the newcomers. A 6-foot-9, 225-pound power forward who got lost on his way to the hardwood, he looks almost comical lining up opposite a standard 6-foot corner.

And Orton, who mastered the intricacies of coach Joe Tiller’s complex passing attack two seasons ago as a sophomore starter, has moved into the Peyton Manning technical ether this season, going so far as to install a set of fake audibles on his own.

“It gets so boring and tedious during summer workouts that I threw in a few fake audibles on our own defense just to amuse the guys. The defense knows all of our stuff, so I threw in some dummy audibles just to keep things interesting,” said Orton, who started mixing in faux calls in offseason practice and now has Tiller’s blessing to use them in games. “We do it all the time now. I don’t know exactly how many I’ll call in a game but maybe 10.

“A guys comes up in press [coverage], and I’ll look down at my guy and maybe give him the dummy. The corner thinks we’ve audibled to something deep and practically turns his back on the receiver to sprint downfield at the snap. Then we throw the quickie, and he’s out of position. It can be a useful tool.”

Only to a guy who has started 30 games, thrown for nearly 8,000 yards and could get his team in and out of the huddle and into the exact play call in his sleep.

“I don’t like comparing him to Drew [Brees], because they’re so different,” Tiller said recently. “Kyle is a bigger guy with a bigger arm — probably 75-yards worth. I used to say Brees was more accurate, but I’m not so sure any more. Kyle’s been pretty strong out there this season.”

Strong enough to lead the Boilermakers within one win of their first 6-0 record since 1943. Strong enough to lead every Heisman poll despite the fact the university is spending less than $5,000 on his campaign, a figure that is just fine with Orton.

“My campaign takes place on the field,” Orton said. “I’m focused on winning games. You guys can focus on the Heisman.”

The fact is the two are probably inextricably linked. If Purdue wins out — and they will be favored in every game with the possible exception of next week’s home date against Michigan — Orton won’t just win the Heisman, he might find himself playing for the national title in the Orange Bowl.

“That’s so many miles down the road right now it’s not even on the map,” Orton said. “Everyone seems interested in the Heisman. But thinking about the Heisman isn’t going to score any touchdowns against Wisconsin.”

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