Sunday, January 19, 2003

Senior Bowl: North 17, South 0

Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal

MOBILE, Ala. - The malfunctions began before the game did. Say this about Saturday's Senior Bowl, at least everyone saw an omen.

First, the Tulane mascot had its suit deflate, causing a delay in introductions when the person inside couldn't get off the field. Then, a microphone wouldn't work as America's Junior Miss attempted the national anthem, causing the crowd to sing and save the struggle.

It became that kind of day for the South.

Just like the weather, this was a deep freeze all the way, as the North squad dominated with defense and a 17-0 victory at soldout Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

"I don't know how many shutouts there have been in this game, but I don't think there has been many," said Dom Capers, the Houston Texans head coach whose staff directed the North squad this week. "I thought our guys did a good job of really staying focused on what they had to get done and went out and did a tremendous job."

In fact, the Senior Bowl had only one previous shutout in its 54-year history. The North won 41-0 in 1990. The past four games were back-and-forth shootouts.

"As a defensive player, you're always thinking shutout," said Notre Dame cornerback Shane Walton, who made the play of the game with a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown. "Coming into the game, I think they (pundits) said we were a 14-point underdog.

"Everyone says they don't really care about the game, but when you step on the field, if you don't want to win, then you're a loser."

The South lost because nothing really went right on offense.

There were missed throws, dropped passes, two lost fumbles, a missed field goal, two failures to convert a fourth-and-1 situation.

It was such an error-filled performance that people began booing - in the first quarter. The South offense, directed by Detroit Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg and his staff, showed little imagination.

"One of those days, I guess," said Florida State receiver Talman Gardner, who fumbled a reverse that killed a South drive on its third possession. "At least nobody on either team got hurt. That's the main thing."

It was one of those days, but not only for the players.

The statistics crew mistakenly credited Penn State running back Larry Johnson for 79 yards on 13 carries. That averaged into a 8.8-yard per-carry effort and moved Senior Bowl officials to award him the game's most valuable player.

Unfortunately, Johnson had 59 yards on 13 carries. The stat crew mistakenly gave him a 40-yard run to start the second half when it was only 20 yards.

The better MVP candidate was probably Johnson's teammate at Penn State, defensive end Michael Haynes, who led an effort that limited the South to 60 yards rushing. Haynes was named the North defensive MVP.

"It comes down to who makes the plays, and today we made the plays," Capers said.

The prevailing wisdom all week was the bulk of playmakers belonged to the South's offense. After all, Southern California quarterback Carson Palmer, the first Heisman Trophy winner to play in 17 years, had excelled in practice.

Palmer started the game that way, too. He completed five of his first seven passes on the first series, giving the South a first down at the North 12. But he threw three incompletions in the end zone, including a fourth-down play.

"I missed a couple guys," said Palmer, whose practice performances this week have elevated him into the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft in April. "We should have scored there, definitely."

Palmer only played the first quarter. He finished with nine completions in 15 attempts for 74 yards. On the South's second series, Auburn's Damon Duval badly missed a 46-yard field goal. The ball lost air halfway in flight and took a wicked left turn.

That was the last time the South had such a scoring chance until the fourth quarter. That one resulted in disaster, too.

On second-and-goal from the North 8, quarterback Chris Simms was trying to connect with Central Florida's Doug Gabriel near the goal line.

We'll let Shane Walton take it from there.

"When you're on the goal line, all they (offense) can do is run slants and fades, so I played inside, waiting on the slant," Walton said. "I read the quarterback, and just jumped on it."

And once he caught it... "Hey, I'm not getting caught."

Walton, a consensus All-American, raced down the North sideline, juking past Simms for his Senior Bowl-record interception return. That play, fittingly, iced the game.

Walton had seven interceptions during the season, tying for third among Division 1-A players.

Florida State remembers Walton. He made a career-high nine tackles and broke up three passes in the Irish victory Oct. 26 in Tallahassee.

"He's a playmaker," Capers said. "And one of the things you see during the course of a week is certain guys that have ability to make big plays. Shane showed that."

The longest play was a 26-yard pass completion from California's Kyle Boller (North squad) to Michigan tight end Bennie Joppru. The South's longest play was Simms' 21-yard completion to North Carolina's Sam Aiken, who led his team with nine catches for 69 yards. Aiken was named the South's MVP.

Mostly, it was a rough outing for Simms. He completed just six of 15 passes for for 52 yards. Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury was four of seven for 29 yards.

Florida Gators' tailback Earnest Graham had 18 yards on six rushes. He caught one pass for nine yards. Florida tight end Aaron Walker did not have a catch.

"When you come into a game situation, after only working four practices together, it's tough to be on the same page," said Gardner, who caught two passes for 19 yards. "We just couldn't get in sync."

The North took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, following Gardner's fumbled reverse at the North 40. Boller led his team into the end zone, aided by a pass interference call. Colorado State's Cecil Sapp finished the drive with an eight-yard scoring run.

The North made it 10-0 with 2:45 left in the third quarter, finishing a 15-play drive when Maryland's Brooks Barnard, a punter all season, booted a 22-yard field goal.

"Hey, we had some good quarterbacks on the North team," Walton said, showing his displeasure with perception the South had the talent edge. "We went against good quarterbacks all week. We had the best players from the North; they had the best players from the South, but we played better."

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