Thursday, January 2, 2003
McGahee, Clarett come long way to reach Fiesta Bowl
By Josh Dubow
The Associated Press
TEMPE, Ariz. - One year ago, Willis McGahee was a fullback for Miami and Maurice Clarett was enjoying his senior year in high school before going to Ohio State.
Both were just blips on the radar screens for followers of their high-profile colleges.
Come Friday night's Fiesta Bowl, neither running back will be able to hide. Both defenses will be geared up to stop their running, and the back who overcomes that just might become national champion.
"I think McGahee and Clarett might be the two best running backs in the country," Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said Tuesday.
"I've watched Maurice Clarett every day in practice and in games and he's extraordinary. I've been watching Willis McGahee for six weeks on film and he's extraordinary. They both are physical, catch the ball well and make big plays. They might both be the biggest reasons the two teams are here."
What got McGahee and Clarett to where they are now are decisions the two made more than a year ago.
McGahee played behind NFL star Clinton Portis last year, doing the grunt work of blocking as a fullback. He didn't mope around about his misfortune. Instead, he worked and bided his time.
"As a fullback, I had to block a bit more," McGahee said. "I took what I learned from fullback to playing tailback. One thing I learned is that I didn't want to play fullback anymore."
When Portis left school early for the NFL and Frank Gore underwent knee surgery in March, McGahee became a full-time tailback. But his patience made an impact on his coach.
"He could have done two things. One is pout, and two is transfer," coach Larry Coker said. "Instead he went to work and made himself into a great player. He serves as a tremendous example for our team."
McGahee dedicated himself to working out in the offseason, even pulling a small pickup truck for 30 seconds a few nights a week in a parking lot near his brother Eugene's gym, not far from campus.
The work paid off.
McGahee shattered the school record with 27 touchdowns this season. He also set school marks in yards rushing (1,686) and all-purpose yards (2,036) and had 10 100-yard games. He even caught 24 passes for 350 yards.
"I worked real hard in the weight room and it just carried over from there," McGahee said. "I knew I had it all along in me. It was just a job of me getting on the field and putting it all together."
On a team full of offensive stars, McGahee has been the most consistent this year, coming through when his team needed him most.
He had 214 total yards against Florida, 172 against Florida State, 171 against Tennessee, and 226 against Virginia Tech.
He took a screen pass 68 yards to set up the game-winning touchdown against Florida State, had a momentum-turning 69-yard TD run against Pittsburgh and scored a school-record six touchdowns in the season finale against Virginia Tech.
"He is probably their premier player," Buckeyes defensive end Darrion Scott said. "Even when the hole's not there, he finds a way. The key is stopping McGahee because he makes plays regardless. He's definitely a cutback guy first. But he runs hard. He'll put his head down and run through you, too."
That could be a description for Clarett as well.
He's become one of the most valuable freshman running backs in history, transforming a sluggish offense into a championship one.
Clarett has made a lot of news off the field this week, saying school officials lied about the reasons he wasn't allowed to fly home to attend the funeral of a friend.
The Buckeyes hope he has as much impact on the field Friday.
One of the top recruits in the country a year ago, Clarett finished high school a semester early and came to Columbus to get a head start on his college career.
He participated in spring practice and quickly won the starting job in August.
"He gave up a relaxing six months of a senior year of high school because he had some goals in mind," Tressel said. "He really didn't think we would start a freshman if they got here in August and he wanted to be the starter as a freshman. That was a goal."
Clarett makes the Buckeyes go. He had 1,190 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns to put Ohio State in position to claim its first national title since 1968.
He ran for 175 yards in the season opener against Texas Tech, had 230 yards in a showdown against Washington State and could have been a Heisman Trophy contender before injuries kept him out of three games.
"Clarett is a playmaker," Miami linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "With him in the game, there is always the threat of him breaking one for a touchdown. He's their go-to guy."
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Capital One: Auburn 13, Penn St. 9
Cotton: Texas 35, LSU 20
Gator: North Carolina St. 28, Notre Dame 6
Outback: Michigan 38, Florida 30
Rose: Oklahoma 34, Washington St. 14
Sugar: Georgia 26, Florida State 13
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OTHER COLLEGE HOOPS
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No. 25 Texas Tech 62, Houston 48
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