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Friday, November 3

Stakes are sky-high in Norman

When top-ranked Nebraska travels to Norman this week to face Oklahoma (No. 3 ESPN/USA Today), the stakes will be about high as it gets.

I have great respect for the history and tradition of both programs. Frank Solich and Bob Stoops have both done outstanding jobs of preparing their teams for the challenges they face each week.

A year ago, Oklahoma was allowing huge leads against both Notre Dame and Texas to slip away. They learned a lesson the hard way from those disappointing losses, not allowing anything like that to happen once they jumped out on top early in games this season.

While Oklahoma destroyed Texas and rose to the challenge with an impressive road victory against Kansas State, you have to go back to the early part of the season when Nebraska beat Notre Dame at South Bend to find a Huskers' victory against a top-25 caliber opponent.
Josh Heupel has been on fire of late, showing the poise, command and accuracy throwing the football that Danny Wuerffel did at Florida during his Heisman Trophy season where he led the Gators to the national championship. Heupel spreads the wealth, often completing passes to four or five wide receivers as well as both tight ends.

In the backfield, RB Quentin Griffin has provided the necessary balance in most games. Defensively, linebackers Torrance Marshall and Rocky Calmus set the tone, with big plays provided in the deep patrol by SS Roy Williams.

For Nebraska, Eric Crouch runs the option with the precision of former Husker signal-callers Turner Gill and Tommie Frazier. Crouch is a winner, who really provides a spark with his hard-nosed, enthusiastic play. He's certainly one of the top Heisman candidates.

Defensively, I feel there are questions about just how smothering this group can be. I just don't see the talent level on the defensive side for the Huskers being at the level it has been in past seasons.

And while Oklahoma destroyed Texas and rose to the challenge with an impressive road victory against Kansas State, you have to go back to the early part of the season when Nebraska pulled out a hard-fought overtime victory against Notre Dame at South Bend to find a victory against a top-25 caliber opponent.

Is Oklahoma more battle-tested? It appears so. But that doesn't always spell the difference in a game of this magnitude. In a game like this, throw out what transpired in the other games.

This will be a war, with Crouch running the option against OU and Heupel forcing Nebraska to match up all day in coverage. You have an overland attack against an aerial circus. What could be better than this?

College football at its best. As for a prediction, I have to stick with what I said back in August. At the time, I went on record as saying that Nebraska and Miami (Fla.) would play for the national championship at the Orange Bowl on Wednesday, Jan. 3. Right now, the prediction is within the realm of possibility. I'm not about to change anything now.

Let's call it: Nebraska 27, Oklahoma 24.

Bulldogs deal with reshuffled offensive line
After blowing a 14-point lead heading into the fourth quarter and falling to LSU 45-38 in overtime last week, the Mississippi State Bulldogs enter Saturday's game in Starkville against Middle Tennessee State with a reshuffled offensive line.

Bulldog left tackle "Pork Chop" Womack, who had been playing through a stress fracture in his lower left leg, came out of the LSU game in the fourth quarter and figures to be sidelined the next four games. After the game against LSU, he was diagnosed with a small crack in the bone above his ankle. A rod was inserted in the leg, likely keeping him out of action until the regular-season finale against Ole Miss.

This week against Middle Tennessee State, Jackie Sherrill is moving Kendric Fairchild from right to left tackle in an effort to protect the blind side of signal-caller Wayne Madkin. Moving in at right tackle will be redshirt freshman Derrick Thompson. The 6-foot-7, 305-pound Thompson was highly recruited out of the prep ranks, but his lack of experience figures to create some nervous moments while he's getting his feet wet.

Normally, a week off around the midway point is a positive. However, that wasn't the case with Sherrill's Bulldogs. Mississippi State looked sluggish on defense in its overtime loss at LSU, with the missed tackles and a lack of sustained intensity something that astute coordinator Joe Lee Dunn figures to address during practice this week.

Healthy Boilermakers ready for Buckeyes
When Purdue hosts Ohio State this week at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, the Boilermakers will be at just about full strength.

The only starter who will be sidelined against the Buckeyes is defensive tackle Brent Botts. He's been out of action since the Northwestern game Oct. 14 when he sustained a rib cage injury. His replacement, Craig Terrill, a redshirt freshman, came through with a solid effort last week against Wisconsin.

While special-teams blunders and breakdowns contributed heavily to Purdue's losses against Notre Dame and Penn State, there is some hope that things are turning around in this area.

Last week against Wisconsin, the blocked field goal return for a TD won it in overtime for the Boilermakers. In addition, they downed four punts inside the Badgers' 10-yard line.

Georgia QB Carter likely to play
After a satisfying 34-30 victory over Kentucky last week, highlighted by the quality effort turned in by former walk-on backup QB Cory Phillips, Georgia hopes to have talented junior signal-caller Quincy Carter back at the helm against Florida on Saturday.

Still working his way back to full strength from the bruised left shoulder, Carter did practice on Tuesday. In such a key game in the SEC East, I'd be surprised if Carter wasn't under center.

By the way, the knee injury to backup RB Musa Smith wasn't as serious as first thought and he could possibly see some action against the Gators. If not, I'm told that he should definitely be ready to go against Auburn on Nov. 11.

After their battle with the Gators, Jim Donnan's squad has the week off.

It's a topsy-turvy Big Ten race
The wild and crazy year in the Big Ten continued last week, with Indiana seriously damaging or possibly even eliminating Minnesota's hopes for the Rose Bowl.

The mad scramble for supremacy now rolls along into the final Saturday in October, with Purdue, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern all currently with just one loss in the conference. Minnesota, Indiana and Penn State have two losses in the Big Ten.

The winner between Ohio State and Purdue on Saturday will control their own destiny for the Big Ten title. Should either win out, they are in. If Purdue loses to Ohio State, Michigan controls things if the Wolverines win their remaining games against Northwestern on the road (Nov. 4) at the Big House against Penn State (Nov. 11), and in Columbus against Ohio State (Nov. 18) to close out for the regular season.

Stanford QB Fasani expected back
Stanford, which improved to 3-4 overall and 2-2 in the Pac-10 after pulling out a thrilling 32-30 victory over slumping USC last week, saw RB Kerry Carter and wide-out DeRonnie Pitts come through with tremendous efforts against the Trojans.

Carter, just a sophomore, enjoyed a career day, picking up 123 yards on the ground while tying a Stanford school record with four rushing TDs. Pitts hauled in an amazing 13 receptions for 176 yards.

QB Randy Fasani, who returned to action against USC after missing three games due to a strained knee ligament, tweaked the knee with just 55 seconds left. Redshirt freshman Chris Lewis tossed the winning TD pass.

This week against Washington at Palo Alto, Fasani figures to be back under center. However, he obviously won't be at full strength, again wearing a knee brace that affects his mobility.

Gophers lose more than big game
In addition to having their Rose Bowl hopes seriously damaged or ended with the loss to Indiana last week, the Minnesota Golden Gophers also suffered a huge injury loss on the defensive side of the ball.

Blue-chip junior CB Willie Middlebrooks, who has been arguably the second best CB in the Big Ten this year behind only Wisconsin's Jamar Fletcher, went down with a fractured left ankle that will keep him sidelined the remainder of the regular season. There is an outside chance he could return for a bowl game.

Trevis Graham, who had been alternating at the other CB spot with Mike Lehan, now takes over Middlebrooks' spot this Saturday against Northwestern at the Metrodome. By the way, the winner of the Northwestern/Minnesota battle could be headed to the Alamo Bowl.

Blunders cost Cal game, but future looks bright
In case you just looked at the final score and didn't realize what transpired in the fourth quarter of the Cal-Washington game, check this out. With 11 minutes left in the game, Cal led Washington 24-13 and was in control of the football.

That's when things fell apart for the Golden Bears. QB Kyle Boller was sacked and fumbled the ball away at the Cal 12-yard line. Washington added a FG to cut the lead to 24-16. On Cal's next drive with eight minutes to go, the wide-out slipped on an out-route, allowing for a Washington interception.

With the TD and failed two-point conversion, Washington trailed just 24-22. After the kickoff, Cal fumbled on the first down play at its own 11-yard line. After a TD, Washington took the lead at 29-24.

The final blunder for Cal occurred when Washington blocked a Cal punt at the Golden Bear 19-yard line. With the TD, Washington ended up winning the game by a score of 36-24. This was definitely one that Cal let slip away.

Still, there is a great deal of promise surrounding the Cal offense for 2001. Sophomore QB Kyle Boller has shown some improvement over the last two weeks, after struggling so much in the early going that there were concerns developing as to whether he was really the right man for the starting job.

In the backfield, sophomore RB Joe Igber has been sensational this year. The multi-talented, 5-foot-8, 193-pounder has performed at an All-American level, accounting for 730 of Cal's 1,094 yards of total offense over the last three games. Folks, that's nearly 70 percent of the attack.

At WR, Cal is starting a pair of freshman, and up front along the offensive line there will be four starters returning for the 2001 season. The problem is, super blue-chip DE Andre Carter will move on to the NFL as a high first-round draft choice.

This week, the Golden Bears are on the road, facing USC.

Razorbacks set back by injuries
Injuries have really plagued the Arkansas Razorbacks this season, but this Saturday at Auburn, they will have starting QB Robby Hampton back at the helm.

Hampton suffered a bruised knee, as well as a neck/shoulder strain against South Carolina two weeks ago, but he returned to practice Tuesday.

Senior wide-out Boo Williams also returned to the practice field Tuesday after dislocating his shoulder against South Carolina. Even so, his status for the Auburn game is viewed as questionable.

Miami hopes for healthy squad vs. Virginia Tech
When Miami (Fla.) hosts Louisiana Tech on Saturday, they hope to have blue-chip DT Damione Lewis and experienced CB Leonard Myers available for action.

Lewis, who has been sidelined with a broken toe, returned to the practice field and may see some playing time as a tuneup for Miami's huge battle with Virginia Tech on Nov. 4 at the Orange Bowl.

Myers, now just about at full strength from the foot injury, started practicing Tuesday. In addition, reserve RB Clinton Portis (toe injury) also returned to the practice field early this week.

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