McFadden rushing back into Heisman consideration

Darren McFadden understands the fickle Heisman Trophy race.

They love me after 195 yards rushing and two touchdowns versus Alabama.

They love me not after 43 yards rushing against Auburn.

Will they please love me after an SEC-record-tying 321 yards rushing, one touchdown and one touchdown pass versus South Carolina?

McFadden, Arkansas' junior All-American running back who came out of nowhere last season and finished second in the Heisman voting, is like a lot of college football players during the season. On game day, especially when he is playing a night game and has to kill time before kickoff, McFadden watches other college games on TV, hears the chatter about who's hot and who's not in the Heisman race.

Maybe it was because Arkansas as a team started slowly, losing its first three SEC games; maybe it was because McFadden finally had a bad game in a loss to Auburn on Oct. 13.

Maybe it was because the national media and networks suddenly fell in love with quarterbacks Dennis Dixon of Oregon and Matt Ryan of Boston College.

For any of the above reasons, McFadden simply was erased from the Heisman waiting list.

"It didn't bother me," McFadden said. "I've kept up with college football over the years. If a guy has just one bad week, it just about eliminates him from a Heisman run. After that happened [against Auburn], I knew I had to come back and play my best."

He tried to get back on the Heisman list with a stunning show in Saturday's 48-36 victory over South Carolina.

Even after McFadden singed South Carolina to the point where Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier jokingly suggested that Arkansas coach Houston Nutt was "running up the score by running the ball," it didn't seem to be enough to many in the media.

McFadden has taken the snubs in stride. But Nutt is incensed that McFadden has been reduced to a Heisman afterthought by so-called experts on the national networks.

"It bewilders me many times to sit to hear the experts discuss the top three or four Heisman candidates, and Darren's name is not even mentioned," Nutt said.

"I' was around Barry Sanders, who won a Heisman, for three years [when Sanders played for Oklahoma State, where Nutt was an assistant]. I was around Thurman Thomas. Darren McFadden is the best player in the country.

"He blocks, he runs, he throws, kick returns … to put the ball under his arm 35 times a game, to take that many hits, to give out that many hits, to have that many long runs … there's a reason he was flown to New York last year when he finished second.

"And now, he's suddenly dropped out of it? There's no way. After what he's done last year and what he's done this year, he has to be in the race."

Statistically, McFadden is having a better season than he was after nine games a year ago. He has more rushing yards (1,314 yards this season compared to 1,038 yards last season), more rushing touchdowns (12 to 10) and more 100-yard games (seven to five).

He also has battled through bruised ribs and a virus. Because Arkansas' passing game has been nonexistent, with star receiver Marcus Monk missing most of the season with torn knee cartilage, McFadden has had to face defenses stacked to stop the run.

And while some critics might point out McFadden has supposedly padded stats against an exceedingly weak nonconference schedule featuring Troy, North Texas, Chattanooga and Florida International, he hasn't played in most or all of the fourth quarters in three of those games. McFadden had just 26 rushing attempts in the second halves against those schools.

Against five SEC teams so far -- Alabama, Kentucky, Auburn, Ole Miss and South Carolina -- McFadden has five touchdowns and is averaging 168.4 yards per game.

"To me, the season has gone pretty good for me," McFadden said.

And it could get better Saturday in Knoxville against Tennessee. Rewind to last year's game in Fayetteville, which was won by Arkansas, 31-14. It was a night the Vols never will forget.

McFadden ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns, and passed for another touchdown. He broke open the game in the second quarter, running for 100 yards and two TDs, and throwing for a TD while operating as a shotgun quarterback taking direct snaps.

The formation, called the WildHog, has the Hogs' other All-SEC running back, Felix Jones, speeding in motion toward McFadden, who has the option of handing off, running himself or passing.

"We pretty much had a good game plan until the second quarter came around," Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "That quarter just killed us. It was the first time we'd seen that formation, and those guys just ripped us up pretty bad."

The bad news for the Vols is that Arkansas didn't use the WildHog much this season until it played South Carolina. Then Arkansas ran 16 plays from the WildHog, resulting in two touchdowns and a healthy hunk of the Razorbacks' 541 yards rushing. The 541 is the sixth-highest rushing total by an SEC team in conference history.

Jones turned in a career-high 166 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries. The NCAA confirmed that the McFadden-Jones duo now owns the Division 1-A record for most combined rushing yards by teammates in a single game (487).

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer caught some of the game on TV and for a moment sympathized with Carolina's Spurrier.

"That's unbelievable," Fulmer said. "[South Carolina] didn't look like the same defensive football team that played against us.

"I think that goes back to [Arkansas] doing all the misdirection stuff, something you don't see every day. It's hard to simulate it in practice."

And it's even harder to simulate McFadden, whose legs are feeling fresh and who is stimulated by the reemergence of the WildHog.

"I've missed running the WildHog a lot this year," McFadden said. "It was a lot of fun to rip off an 80-yard run, and it was fun to stand over there and watch Felix rip off his long runs."

Ron Higgins covers the Southeastern Conference for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.