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Friday, November 3

Freshman keeps Clemson unblemished

After an impressive 38-24 come-from-behind victory over North Carolina on Saturday, the fifth-ranked Clemson Tigers enter late October as one of the nation's five major unbeatens at 8-0.

It wasn't easy on Saturday, however, as the Tar Heels jumped to a 17-0 lead early on, then knocked Heisman candidate Woody Dantzler out of the game in the second quarter with a bruised ankle. At that point, the Tigers had to deal with a hostile environment and the knowledge that their backup signal caller would be forced to orchestrate the comeback.

Keith Adams
Linebacker Keith Adams ran back an interception to the 2-yard line, setting up Clemson's last touchdown.

Any observer had to believe the deck was stacked against the Tigers.

The stage was set for redshirt freshman quarterback Willie Simmons, a talented former prep star out of Quincy, Fla., who threw for over 6,000 yards and 96 touchdowns during his brilliant high-school career. At Shanks High, Simmons also was a standout in the classroom, carrying a 3.8 grade point average.

The heavily recruited 6-foot, 192-pounder was also pursued by the likes of Florida State, Miami (Fla.), Auburn, Georgia Tech and Syracuse. With that said, Simmons wasn't able to perform up to expectations last spring, hampered by a sprained ankle. In the spring game, he completed just 13 of 34 passes.

When at full strength, though, Tommy Bowden and offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez knew better than anyone what type of ability Simmons possessed. On Saturday, his raw talent was evident, to the dismay of Tar Heels fans in attendance at scenic Kenan Memorial Stadium.

With the Tigers trailing 17-0, Simmons orchestrated the 38-24 comeback victory, completing 10 of 18 passes for 232 yards. His four touchdown strikes -- three of which were to highly skilled senior wide-out Rod Gardner -- tied a school record. Simmons dealt with the pressure like a veteran senior, proving beyond any doubt that the Tigers offense won't miss a beat when he takes over the reigns from Dantzler for the 2002 season.

Simmons' development and growth as a young signal caller mirrors the way Bobby Bowden has brought his signal callers along at FSU. He'll be a fourth-year junior when he takes over control of the offense, while providing Tommy Bowden and Rodriguez with the security that they can allow Dantzler the freedom to run with the football without the fear that an injury will destroy the Tigers' season.

Even this year, you notice that Dantzler rarely if ever slides down prior to contact in the open field. In fact, he operates more like a running back, usually taking on defenders. This season, he's already carried the ball 130 times through the first eight games.

Tigers, Tech have been too close for comfort
As for this week's game against Georgia Tech at Death Valley, Dantzler figures to be ready to go, as the Tigers look to end their three-game losing streak to the Rambling Wreck. During that stretch, every game was decided by just a field goal, with the Tigers falling by scores of 23-20, 24-21 and 45-42 last season. In fact, the last four games between Clemson and Georgia Tech have been decided by three points. In '96, the Tigers prevailed by a count of 28-25. To prove even further just how close this series has been of late, consider that eight of the last 10 have been decided by four points or less.

By the way, against North Carolina, a key play was turned in by redshirt freshman wide-out Kevin Youngblood. It wasn't a pass reception, but rather a third-quarter fumble recovery on a punt return by North Carolina that set the Clemson offense up at the Tar Heels' 31-yard line. Youngblood's recovery set up a field goal that tied the score at 17.

For the day, Youngblood operated more as a decoy at wide receiver, finishing with just one reception for 17 yards. In future weeks, however, the physically talented 6-foot-5, 220-pounder could turn out to be a vital performer in the Tigers' passing attack. In future years, he appears to have star quality.

For now though, it's super blue-chip senior Rod Gardner who is stealing the headlines at the wide-receiver position for Clemson. Over the last three games against N.C. State, Maryland and North Carolina, he's hauled in 22 receptions for 467 yards. Against the Tar Heels on Saturday, he grabbed three touchdown receptions from Willie Simmons.

After facing Georgia Tech on Saturday at Death Valley, the Tigers travel to Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee to face the Seminoles of Florida State in the "Bowden Bowl." For the Tigers, it will be their 10th straight week in action.

Dating back to the season opener Sept. 2 against The Citadel, Bowden's Tigers haven't had a chance to rest up. The Tigers first open date will come on Nov. 4 in preparation for their regular-season finale against South Carolina at Death Valley.

A&M QB Farris an underrated wonder
This week, a key game in the Big 12 has Kansas State traveling to College Station to face the steadily improving Aggies of Texas A&M. Now at 5-2 after their 30-7 road victory over Iowa State, the Aggies find themselves tied for second in the Big 12 South with Texas. They trail Oklahoma, but in two weeks the Sooners visit College Station. On Nov. 24, the Aggies play at Texas.

In my opinion, one of the most underrated offensive players in the country thus far has been A&M sophomore quarterback Mark Farris. He's on track to break several school records, throwing for over 1,600 yards and completing 61.4 percent of his passes through the first seven games.

While a true sophomore eligibility-wise, Farris is currently 25 years old, coming to the Aggies in January 1999 after several years in the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization. Last season, Farris saw limited action working behind starter Randy McCown. Now the established leader of the A&M offense, you notice his steady progress and evolution into a quality collegiate signal caller.

Farris' primary target has been talented 6-foot-2, 218-pound wide-out Robert Ferguson. Like Farris, he also deserves more national recognition than he's been receiving.

Ferguson, a sturdy wide receiver with excellent natural pass-catching skills, leads the Aggies with 35 receptions through their first seven games. He's averaging an impressive 17.4 yards per catch and is on a pace to break every A&M receiving record before his career is over.

WR Johnson emerging for Beavers
We're entering the final Saturday in October, and both Oregon and Oregon State have identical 6-1 records. The Ducks are ranked seventh in the AP poll and 10th in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, while the Beavers are ranked 18th in the AP and 17th in the ESPN/USA Today poll. Mike Bellotti and Dennis Erickson have done tremendous coaching jobs, while developing huge home-field advantages at Eugene and Corvallis, respectively.

In Oregon State's 44-38 win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl, it wasn't just Ken Simonton pacing the overland attack. Providing quite a one-two punch was reserve tailback Patrick McCall. The junior, who transferred to OSU from Michigan and was forced to sit out the '99 season, carried the ball 23 times for 146 yards and one touchdown. Simonton finished with 24 carries for 100 yards.

Emerging of late at wide receiver for the Beavers has been senior Chad Johnson. The 6-foot-2, 198-pounder has shown vertical stretch ability, hauling in one touchdown reception over the last five games. Against Stanford two weeks ago, he established a school record when he caught a 97-yard TD reception from QB Jonathan Smith. For the year, he's totaled 19 catches for a whopping 23.2-yard average. This past week against UCLA, he finished with eight receptions for 104 yards and one touchdown.

Johnson, who has been clocked at sub-4.4, first stepped onto the field for the Beavers during fall practice in August after coming to OSU from Santa Monica College where he hauled in 63 receptions during the '99 season. He actually began his college career at Langston, after starring at the prep level at Miami Beach High School.

After struggling some early this season, Johnson has been a major factor in the Beavers' pass offense over the last five games. If he finishes strong, a wide-out with his size, deep speed and athleticism figures to be watched very closely by the NFL brass in the weeks and months leading up to the NFL draft in April.

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