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Saturday, October 25, 2003
Harris steals show on MAC's big night

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio -- The Chicago Tribune and its "Dewey Beats Truman" headline are off the hook. Chris Webber can call all the timeouts he wants. Steve Bartman, come back to Wrigley Field. There's a new national bonehead.

The California recall is no longer the goofiest election of the year. That honor -- go ahead and engrave the trophy -- goes to the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, given to the best senior quarterback in the nation. The Unitas named seven finalists this week, and none of them are Josh Harris of Bowling Green.

That's like asking a first-grade class to name its favorite foods, but, no, boys and girls, you can't vote for ice cream. Most beautiful actresses, take a step forward. Not so fast, Nicole Kidman. All the Bowling Green senior did was throw for 438 yards, a Doyt Perry Stadium record, and rush for 89 more, in leading the Falcons (7-1, 4-0) to a stunning 34-18 defeat of No. 14 Northern Illinois (7-1, 3-1). The number of unbeatens in Division I-A is down to three. Thanks to the arm, the feet and the cool of Harris, the number of favorites in the MAC West is down to one.

"If there's a better quarterback in America," Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon said, "who is he?"

That's why I came to a school like Bowling Green. When the bigger schools didn't offer me, I said, 'That's fine. I'll just go to the MAC.' I want to be the best quarterback ever to play at Bowling Green. I don't know if that's me, but I gave myself an opportunity to stick out.
Bowling Green's Josh Harris
They held the biggest game in the Mid-American Conference in many years on a raw, soggy Saturday in northwest Ohio. Regardless of the outcome, the day would have been historic, which is not said lightly. Bowling Green has a proud history, and many names from its past came back this weekend.

Don Nehlen, who coached here for nine seasons before going to West Virginia, came back. Judy Perry McClain, the daughter of Doyt Perry, who went 77-11-5 (.855) from 1955-64, returned for the first time in decades. They, and the rest of the 31,007 fans, the second-biggest crowd ever here, saw a performance that will be remembered here for as long as they chant "BG!SU!"

Harris lofted the ball over the secondary, and he zipped it between linebackers. He took the shotgun snap and carried it up the middle, and he scrambled around end. On the goal line, he even lined up wide, where he proved to be an effective decoy. Tailback P.J. Pope took the shotgun snap and ran three yards for Bowling Green's first touchdown.

The Falcons scored again before three minutes had run off the first-quarter clock. On the two drives, Harris completed passes of 44, 46 and 31 yards. It turns out that he has a long memory. A year ago, Bowling Green took an 8-0 record and a No. 16 ranking to Northern Illinois, and lost 26-17. The Huskies blitzed Harris nearly every time the Falcons lined up in an "empty" (five receivers, no backs) set.

"Last year," Bowling Green wide receiver Cole Magner said, "he wouldn't be able to read defenses as quick. He'd panic and take off running."

"We knew when we got into the empty set that they didn't cover everybody," Brandon said. "If they are going to put seven guys up there, you've got to find the empty guy. Josh did a great job of film study and preparing."

That game stuck with Harris for 12 months. "I've watched the tape from last year five or six times, until finally, I got sick of seeing it," he said outside his locker room after the game.

"This year, I made sure I didn't make the same mistakes. I knew what to look for. I knew the keys to the blitzes. I knew after the safeties showed blitz where they were going. We were able to exploit them."

The 44-yard pass on the second snap of the game went to tight end Craig Jarrett, who ran under it all by himself. When James Hawkins caught the 31-yard touchdown pass that made it 14-0, there wasn't a Husky within 10 yards of him.

The quick lead took Northern Illinois out of its game plan. Tailback Michael Turner, the second-leading rusher in the nation, ran for 87 yards on only 18 carries. The Huskies had to throw the ball, and quarterback Josh Haldi isn't nearly as dangerous as Turner.

Harris, on the other hand, did everything but hand out water bottles during timeouts. He had thrown for 405 yards before the third quarter ended, and spent the fourth quarter trying to make the clock run.

Harris, who finished 27-of-43, has come a long way from running the option at Westerville North High, just outside of Columbus. Ohio State and Penn State wanted him as a defensive back. Harris knew he had a passer somewhere inside of him.

"That's why I came to a school like Bowling Green," Harris said. "When the bigger schools didn't offer me, I said, 'That's fine. I'll just go to the MAC.' I want to be the best quarterback ever to play at Bowling Green. I don't know if that's me, but I gave myself an opportunity to stick out."

Oh, Harris sticks out all right. Through eight games, he has completed 65.1 percent of his passes, thrown for 2,285 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has rushed for 390 yards and seven scores.

Harris sticks out for everyone but the Unitas Award. According to the award's press release, the finalists are picked by a "select committee of football experts from across the United States." That committee couldn't pick itself out of a mirror.

John Navarre of Michigan and Matt Schaub of Virginia, who missed two games with a shoulder injury, are finalists. Harris is not. Mississippi's Eli Manning, Oklahoma's Jason White, North Carolina State's Philip Rivers and Tulane's J.P. Losman make the cut. Harris does not. He may have to be satisfied with taking Bowling Green to the MAC West championship and a bowl game, the school's first in 11 seasons. Representatives from the Fiesta, Orange, Tangerine, Motor City and GMAC Bowls watched him Saturday, and they saw one of the best performances by any quarterback this season.

Someone asked Harris in a postgame press conference whether he had just played his best game ever.

"I don't know," Harris began.

"Hell, yes, it was!" boomed Brandon, who had just walked into the room.

The Unitas Award press release does say, "Additional candidates could be added at a later date if their performance dictates such inclusion."

It's not too late. Once Dan Quayle misspelled "potato", his political career was never the same. The Unitas Award has a chance to save itself. How about it, select football experts?

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.