Grigsby is out to prove himself

Wharton is a Times staff writer.

The message came across loud and clear.

Didn’t matter that Nic Grigsby ranked among the top few rushers in the Pacific 10 Conference. Didn’t matter that he had just gained 13 yards on a nifty run.

The moment the ball fumbled from his arms, the Arizona running back was banished to the sideline for the remainder of the game.

“It was a little lesson they wanted me to learn,” Grigsby said of his benching last week at California. “Hit me right in the face.”


So it is a penitent and angry young man who hopes to make amends when Arizona plays sixth-ranked USC in a critical game in Tucson on Saturday night.

The Trojans defense represents only half the test facing Grigsby. When he got yanked against Cal, freshman Keola Antolin exploded for 149 yards and three touchdowns.

Now Coach Mike Stoops, while suggesting that Grigsby remains the starter, is talking about using his backs as a one-two punch. And the small, quick Antolin looks an awful lot like Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers, who had a big game against USC this season.

Which only increases Grigsby’s desire to prove himself to the coaches. “They want to see how I react,” he said.

Challenges are nothing new to the sophomore from Whittier.

His high school career was a traveling road show, with a new stop almost every season. He began at Compton Dominguez High, then transferred to Santa Fe Springs St. Paul because his mother thought it would be safer.

Grigsby ran for 758 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior but had to leave St. Paul for financial reasons. He ended up at Whittier California, hardly an athletic powerhouse.

The good news? He dominated opponents to the tune of 1,273 yards as a senior.

The bad news? “Everything was slower, guys weren’t as good,” he recalled. “I didn’t think it was getting me ready for college.”

Still, Arizona offered him a scholarship and got a slashing runner who contributed immediately. He became a starter early in the 2007 season and led the team in rushing with 704 yards.

This fall started off well too, with Grigsby providing a steady counterpoint to the Wildcats passing attack led by quarterback Willie Tuitama. He ran for 614 yards through the first six games, ranking near the top of the Pac-10.

“He was very effective just slipping our guys and making them miss,” said Washington Coach Tyrone Willingham, who watched Grigsby gain 113 yards against his team. “With their offensive scheme, it was a great complement.”

But his aggressive style of running, his habit of letting the ball get away from his body, led to fumbles against New Mexico, UCLA and Stanford.

“I was just thinking about making big plays,” Grigsby said, “not being aware of who was around me.”

For Stoops, the quick turnover against Cal -- on Arizona’s second play from scrimmage -- was the last straw. The coach said: “I think this is becoming habit-forming and there have got to be consequences.”

Grigsby needed to be careful how he reacted.

Stoops wasn’t happy with his body language on the sideline, but several days later, speaking to a reporter, the running back made a point of praising teammates -- Antolin in particular -- for the comeback victory against the Golden Bears. He talked about working harder in practice.

Other emotions lingered in the background.

“I was mad,” he acknowledged. “It was hard watching that game.”

Now he has a chance to show his coach that “I’ve learned my lesson.” A chance to prove himself against one of the toughest defenses in college football.

Now he has a chance to take his anger out on USC.