COLLEGE FOOTBALL / GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI : Team Blooms but All Is Not Rosy

If Northwestern, already 2-0 in the Big Ten Conference and 4-1 overall, somehow runs the table and wins its next six games (and Tori Spelling wins an Oscar), the Wildcats still might not reach the Rose Bowl.

Imagine: The 10-victory dream season, Northwestern's finest since well, ever, ends in, yuk, the Citrus Bowl?

Lost in the euphoria of Northwestern's best start since 1963 and the subsequent giddy talk of a trip to Pasadena or, longshot of longshots, an appearance in the all-important Fiesta Bowl, are two teensy-weensy details:

1--If undefeated Ohio State wins its next seven Big Ten games, the Buckeyes, not the Wildcats, will receive the Rose Bowl invitation.

2--Northwestern lost to Miami of Ohio.

Under normal circumstances, if Ohio State and Northwestern tied for the Big Ten championship, the Wildcats would get the Rose Bowl's automatic bid. But a two-way tie involving these teams wouldn't be normal circumstances.

According to the league's tiebreaker policy, the Buckeyes have almost all the advantages.

--First tiebreaker: Head-to-head competition.

Ohio State and Northwestern don't play each other this season.

--Second tiebreaker: Overall winning percentage.

So much for the Wildcats. The best Northwestern can finish is 10-1. Ohio State can go 11-0.

--Third tiebreaker: Date of last Rose Bowl appearance.

Doesn't matter if both teams don't lose another game.

--Little-known exception rule: If one of the teams is ranked No. 1 or No. 2, that team gets the Rose Bowl bid to ensure a game with national championship ramifications.

A 10-1 Northwestern team ranked No. 1 or 2? I can't believe I typed those words. An undefeated Ohio State team finishing No. 1 or 2? Possible, if not probable, depending on Nebraska and Florida State.

NORTHWESTERN--PART II

Whatever happens, the Wildcats will forever wonder how they blew a 28-7 fourth-quarter lead against Miami of Ohio and lost, 30-28. The upset came two weeks after Northwestern's shocking victory at Notre Dame and has remained on the players' minds even after victories over Air Force, Indiana and the most recent stunner, a 19-13 win at Michigan.

"Probably the lowest point since I've been here was the couple days immediately following our Miami of Ohio game," said fifth-year senior kicker Sam Valenzisi, the Northwestern captain who has yet to miss a field-goal attempt this season. "It might have been the biggest disappointment of my athletic career. And I think that I speak for the rest of the guys on the team when I say that it was the biggest disappointment that any of us have ever encountered since we've been at Northwestern."

Of course, the victory over then-No. 7-ranked Michigan helped ease the hurt.

"I don't think I touched the ground, I really don't," Valenzisi said.

Unlike the time it botched things after the Notre Dame upset, Wildcat Coach Gary Barnett said his team won't make the same mistake twice.

"I didn't feel we were big headed [against Miami of Ohio]," he said, "[We] didn't play the fourth quarter. I don't expect them to mishandle this situation."

Meanwhile, Big Ten coaches are coming out of the woodwork to offer the obligatory I-told-you-so to disbelieving media types.

"I've been touting Northwestern all summer," said Joe Paterno, whose Penn State team is 0-2 in the conference. "I told everybody around who would listen to me that Northwestern could have won three or four more games last year with any kind of luck at all."

Joe Pa didn't exactly mention when he picked the Wildcats to beat Notre Dame and Michigan on the road.

"Obviously, they've done a good job recruiting and done a good job coaching," said Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr, through clenched teeth.

"A great team," said Minnesota Coach Jim Wacker, whose team plays Northwestern on Saturday.

If you're looking for reasons for the remarkable turnaround, try these:

Barnett's staff has been together for four years . . . 16 returning starters, all seniors . . . seven backups who are seniors . . . 13 takeaways vs. four giveaways . . . quality depth at every position except tailback and outside linebacker . . . success recruiting nationally . . . size and experience on the offensive and defensive lines.

"They have to shave twice a day and all that stuff," said Wacker, referring to Northwestern's linemen.

Barnett isn't getting too excited about Wildcat fever. He saw what happened against Miami of Ohio and he saw what happened last season, when, after a promising 3-3-1 start, Northwestern lost its four remaining games by a combined 158-54.

"Are we Michigan? No," he said. "Ohio State? Probably not. But we're a lot better than we were before."

HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN

There will be no soft landings at Miami, where first-year Coach Butch Davis now realizes someone snipped the rip cord on the Hurricane parachute.

Only three full seasons removed from its last national championship, Miami is 1-3 (its worst start since 1976), hasn't beaten a Division I-A opponent and might not even qualify for a bowl game. Otherwise, things are wonderful at a program once described by one competing conference commissioner as, "a mile wide and an inch deep."

Unless the Hurricanes win six of their next seven games, Miami will be a bowl no-show for the first time since 1982. They've lost their starting quarterback for at least another week. Their once-strutting defense has given up 31 points to UCLA and 41 to Florida State. Their head coach looks as if he wishes he could beam himself back to the Dallas Cowboys, where his hands were weighed down by Super Bowl rings.

And that's the good news.

Thanks to a helmet-full of alleged NCAA violations, the Committee on Infractions is considering what penalties to levy against the Hurricanes, effective next season. And won't that help Davis' rebuilding process?

For now, Davis isn't making any rash decisions, such as resigning and selling Amway products. After hinting that he might replace quarterback Ryan Clement with redshirt freshman Scott Covington, who played at Dana Hills High, Davis says there will be no changes--for now.

THE REST

In a bumbling effort to keep its coaches from saying something stupid (see Cooper, John), a Big Ten Conference official informed reporters on the weekly teleconference call to confine their questions to a review of last Saturday's games and a preview of upcoming games. "We'd like to stay away from any issues that involve college football," said Big Ten moderator Dennis LaBissoniere. Oh, OK, how 'bout them Bears? Next up for the Big Ten censors: prerecorded postgame news conferences by coaches. . . . Maybe it's just a coincidence--or maybe Florida Coach Steve Spurrier isn't liked by his peers--but the third-ranked Gators were the only top-five team in the USA Today/CNN coaches poll not to receive a first-place vote. . . . No need for shock absorbers on the Texas A&M; bandwagon. In two weeks the Aggies have seen their No. 3 ranking, their undefeated record, their national championship hopes, their Heisman Trophy candidate chances and their 29-game Southwest Conference win streak disappear. "What can I say? I'm speechless," said running back Leeland McElroy, who was held to 80 total yards in Saturday's 14-7 loss to Texas Tech, 184.3 yards fewer than his previous average. . . . Until the victory over the Aggies, Texas Tech Coach Spike Dykes had never beaten a top 10 team during his nine seasons as a head coach.

Considering the devastation caused by Hurricane Opal, Auburn Coach Terry Bowden is careful not to complain too loud, but the truth of the matter is this: The hurricane forced school officials to switch last Thursday night's game against Mississippi State to last Saturday. Auburn won big, 48-20, but the schedule change cost Bowden and his staff two extra days to prepare for Hurricane Steve, otherwise known as Spurrier's Florida Gators. In the last two seasons, Bowden and his father, Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden, are a combined 5-0 against Spurrier. . . . With his school-record 294-yard game against Purdue last Saturday, Minnesota running back Chris Darkins moved from 46th place in the NCAA rushing rankings to seventh. Darkins had 141 yards and three touchdowns in the third quarter alone.

Illinois has won its last three games and averaged 11 points doing it. Lucky for the Illini, their defense has held opponents to seven, zero and 10 points. . . . After watching quarterback Koy Detmer crumple to the ground untouched against Kansas last Saturday, Colorado Coach Rick Neuheisel prepared himself for the inevitable question: Why, if Detmer already had a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, was he allowed to play? "The kid and his parents all wanted to see if he could do it," said Neuheisel, adding that Detmer had played well in practice and had been given medical clearance by Colorado's doctors. "So we gave him a shot. He went in there and played valiantly and unfortunately it wasn't stable enough to hold up. Now we're going to get it fixed." Detmer had reconstructive surgery on Monday and could be ready to take part in non-contact passing drills by spring practice. . . . Don't bother explaining the importance of Saturday's Oklahoma-Texas game to first-year Sooner Coach Howard Schnellenberger. Asked how long it took for him to understand the significance of the rivalry, Schnellenberger said, "About 30 seconds." Oklahoma has lost five of the last six games against the Longhorns. And with four Texas-based schools (Texas, Texas A&M;, Texas Tech and Baylor) joining the conference next season to form the Big 12, it was no surprise that Schnellenberger dispatched five of his seven assistant coaches to the state for the first weekend of recruiting. . . . Maybe we're too tough on Miami. Florida State's Bowden says the Hurricanes will be a top 10 team next year.

Before the season started, several prominent Stanford players diplomatically said they weren't sorry to see Bill Walsh gone as Cardinal coach. An excuse for last season's dismal 3-7-1 finish? Apparently not. Under new Coach Tyrone Willingham, Stanford is 4-0-1, compared to the 1-3-1 start last year.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Top 10

As selected by staff writer Gene Wojciechowski

*--*

No. Team Record 1. Nebraska 5-0 2. Florida State 5-0 3. Ohio State 5-0 4. Florida 5-0 5. USC 5-0 6. Auburn 4-1 7. Tennessee 5-1 8. Kansas State 5-0 9. Colorado 5-1 10. Michigan 5-1

*--*

Waiting list: 11. Oklahoma (4-1); 12. Texas (4-1); 13. Alabama (4-1); 14. Kansas (5-0); 15. Northwestern (4-1); 16. Stanford (4-0-1); 17. Oregon (4-1); 18. Notre Dame (4-2); 19. Wisconsin (2-1-1); 20. Virginia (5-2); 21. Texas A&M; (2-2); 22. Iowa (4-0); 23. Penn State (3-2); 24. Texas Tech (2-2); 25. Maryland (5-1).

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°