- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2006

The ninth Saturday of the college football season belonged to two brilliant backfield performances — and Houdini.

Escape was the theme of the week as three of the nation’s elite teams (Texas, Tennessee and Notre Dame) narrowly avoided upsets, maligned Miami wriggled out of a defeat that would have been almost as humiliating as last week’s brawl and Michigan State established a standard for comebacks.

Nobody was luckier than the fifth-ranked Longhorns (7-1, 4-0 Big 12), who were handed a get-out-of-jail-free card in Lincoln when Nebraska wideout Terrence Nunn fumbled on his own 44 with 2:17 remaining and the Cornhuskers (6-2, 3-1) simply trying to run out the clock. If Nunn had taken a knee after his first-down catch, the ‘Huskers would have hooked the ‘Horns 20-19.

Instead, he fumbled (shades of last season’s debacle against Texas Tech), and Texas stayed in the national title picture with a chip-shot field goal.

Both the Irish (6-1) and Vols (6-1, 2-1 SEC) stayed in the BCS fray after scraping out ugly home victories against UCLA (20-17) and Alabama (16-13), respectively. The Back Judge has to chuckle at the way the national media chose to frame the respective fourth-quarter comebacks, however.

Erik Ainge, who passed for more than 300 yards and led the Vols to 10 unanswered points in the final quarter, saw his long-shot Heisman Trophy hopes evaporate — and rightly so — because of three first-half interceptions.

Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn, however, inevitably will receive a Heisman boost after leading a three-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the game’s final minute to salvage an otherwise lamentable performance.

Perception is everything.

Speaking of which, how many people saw Miami’s goal-line interception that stymied Duke’s potential game-winning drive as an unfortunate victory for evil over good? Probably quite a few. Of course, Duke probably has had more athletes arrested over the last year than Miami.

The day’s defining drama, however, was authored by the Spartans (4-4, 1-3 Big Ten), who set a new Division I-A record by erasing a 35-point deficit at Northwestern (2-6, 0-4). Trailing 38-3 with 9:54 left in the third quarter, Michigan State closed with 38 unanswered points to stun the Wildcats.

There’s no telling whether his team’s Lazarus act will resurrect the career of embattled coach John L. Smith. Michigan State’s perseverance in Evanston wasn’t just a statistical shock, bettering the 31-point comebacks by former record-holders Maryland (1984) and Ohio State (1989); it qualifies as miraculous given the program’s routine lack of focus, grit and persistence under Smith.

Gameballs and gassers

This week’s plaudits go to the running backs from Clemson and Rutgers who are trying to shatter the notion that the nation’s most talented backfield resides in Morgantown.

Clemson sophomore James Davis moved into the Heisman conversation by shredding Georgia Tech’s vaunted defense for a career-high 216 rushing yards in the Tigers’ 31-7 romp. Hopefully, James won’t lose Heisman style points because of the sartorial lobotomy that decided the Tigers should be adorned in deep purple.

The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Davis is the wrecking ball who drives the nation’s top scoring offense. But he has a nasty-quick sidekick in freshman jitterbug C.J. Spiller, who tagged the Yellow Jackets for 116 rushing yards and added a 50-yard catch-and-run touchdown for good measure.

Over the last four games, Davis and Spiller have combined to average a staggering 253 rushing yards a game, gaining 8.5 yards a carry and personally outscoring opponents 78-33. Somewhere, Mike Shanahan is drooling.

Rutgers features a more conventional though equally devastating duo in sophomore tailback Ray Rice and senior fullback Brian Leonard. Workhorse Rice ripped Pitt for 225 rushing yards on 39 carries Saturday night as the Scarlet Knights moved to 7-0 for the first time in 30 years. Already on the Heisman radar, Rice ranks second in the nation in rushing yardage a game (160.57).

But Rice clearly wouldn’t be as effective without Leonard, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound bull who blows open massive holes for Rice and also boasts two of the nation’s best hands. Leonard has accumulated 394 total yards on 68 touches this season and has lost yardage on just one of 45 carries.

By the way, Rutgers coach Dave Schiano is a lock for coach of the year and easily could end up at Miami next season. The Hurricanes’ defensive coordinator under Butch Davis, Schiano would be the logical choice to replace lame duck Larry Coker.

The only gasser goes to the aforementioned Nebraska knucklehead, Lincoln’s public enemy, Terrence Nunn.

Current Heisman ladder: Troy Smith, Ray Rice, Steve Slaton, James Davis.

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