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Thursday, November 16

Florida State's backfield banged up

When the Florida State Seminoles square off against Florida on Saturday night in Tallahassee, they will do so with a backfield situation that is much different than what they expected.

At least quarterback Chris Weinke is healthy for the Seminoles' huge showdown with Florida.

Against Wake Forest last week, the Seminoles led just 14-6 at the half before pulling away to a 35-6 victory. In the process, they lost vital backup running back Jeff Chaney for the season with a major knee injury. Speedy junior Davy Ford, who can hit the home run off the bench, was also lost for the year with a broken left collarbone.

If that's not enough, blue-chip true freshman Greg Jones also went down with a sprained ankle. He didn't practice Monday or Tuesday, making his status for the Florida game questionable. With all the injuries at the tailback spot, the Seminoles were forced to shift reserve wide-out Nick Maddox to tailback during the Wake Forest game.

Against the Gators on Saturday night, Maddox will operate as the chief backup to senior Travis Minor. Maddox was a prep star at running back, rushing for 2,536 yards and 33 touchdowns as a high school senior out of Kannapolis, N.C.

The status of Minor is also in question. The reliable, hard-working senior sprained his ankle against Wake Forest on the last play of the first half. Minor returned to practice on Wednesday and is scheduled to start at tailback against the Gators.

Texas-El Paso a big (but lesser-known) surprise
In case you haven't noticed, one of the more surprising teams in college football this season hasn't been just South Carolina or Northwestern. How about the Miners of Texas-El Paso?

Gary Nord, in his first year as head coach after working as UTEP's offensive coordinator from 1997 to 1999, has done quite a job in leading the Miners to their first conference championship in 44 years. With a win Saturday at TCU, the Miners would win outright the WAC championship. A loss and they would share the title with TCU and possibly San Jose State.

Either way, the Miners are going to a bowl game for the first time since 1988. That year, under head coach Bob Stull, the Miners finished with a record of 10-3, losing to Southern Mississippi in the Independence Bowl. Ironically enough, Stull now holds down the job of athletic director at UTEP.

Since head coach Gary Nord took over running UTEP's offense in '97, the Miners have shown steady improvement.

As far as which bowl game it will be for the Miners, there are a number of possibilities. With a win over TCU, they would be headed to the Silicon Valley Bowl to face an at-large opponent.

With a loss and share of the WAC title, they could end up at either the Las Vegas or Humanitarian Bowl. Also not out of the question would be the Silicon Valley Bowl.

Currently, the Miners are 8-2, with key victories on the road at San Jose State and also a 23-13 home win over Fresno State. At Oklahoma in the season lid-lifter, the Miners turned the ball over seven times in their 55-14 loss. Two weeks later at Texas A&M, they actually held a 17-14 lead at the half, before falling 45-17.

Since head coach Gary Nord took over running the offense in '97, the Miners have shown steady improvement when it comes to moving the football and scoring points. His first year as offensive coordinator, they were 97th in the nation in total offense. In '98, they improved to 51st. In 99, they were 43rd.

This season, UTEP is 26th in the nation in total offense. The 43-year-old Nord has to be one of the top five to seven candidates for coach of the year, with Bob Stoops and Lou Holtz figuring to be at the top of the list.

Keying the vastly improved Miner offense has been senior quarterback Rocky Perez. He's fourth in the nation in passing efficiency, while setting a school record with 24 touchdown passes. He's tossed just five interceptions.

His favorite targets are junior wide-out Lee Mays and senior tight end Brian Natkin. Mays is seventh in the nation, averaging 105 receiving yards per game. Natkin leads all tight ends in the country with 59 catches for 735 yards (12.5 yard average) and four touchdowns.

Defensively, UTEP's main headliner has been senior defensive end Menson Holloway. The 6-foot-2, 273-pounder leads the WAC in sacks and has totaled 30 quarterback pressures and 14 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Another key performer has been middle linebacker Trey Merkens. The rugged senior leads the Miners with 96 stops.

Free safety D.J. Walker, just a sophomore, has also enjoyed an outstanding season. The physically talented 6-foot-3, 210-pounder has recorded 53 stops while coming away with five interceptions. The Miners get after the opposition with their attacking defense.

Texas frosh Williams draws Moss comparisons
Since their 63-14 thrashing at the hands of No. 1-ranked Oklahoma, the Texas Longhorns have gone on a five-game winning streak and will close out the regular season at home against Texas A&M on Nov. 24.

Against Kansas this past Saturday, the Longhorns' trend of falling behind early continued. They trailed 14-0 before destroying the Jayhawks 51-16.

With Major Applewhite sidelined with a knee injury (small tear of posterior cruciate ligament), sophomore lefty Chris Simms was at the helm against the Jayhawks. Despite periods of inconsistency, Simms was able to showcase his above-average arm strength, hooking up effectively on a number of occasions with the Longhorns potential All-World true freshman wide-out Roy Williams.

Texas WR Roy Williams has been the elite true freshman performer in college football.

For the day, Simms was 10-of-18 for 240 yards and two touchdowns. The key though, was his ability to hook up on deep aerials with Williams.

Simms connected with Williams on 65- and 38-yard TD strikes, while also completing passes covering 45 and 34 yards to the gifted Williams.

For the year, Williams has been the elite true freshman performer in college football. He's already drawing comparisons to Randy Moss. The 6-foot-5, 205-pounder has blazing speed, tremendous leaping ability and has proven to be a very physical wide-out. The credit for that goes to junior cornerback Quentin Jammer.

During fall practice, Jammer matched up against Williams in man situations, basically teaching Williams how to get off the line of scrimmage and beat press coverage. For the year, Williams has hauled in 36 receptions for a whopping 20.1 yard average and seven TDs. Against Kansas this past week, he also went 35 yards for a touchdown on a reverse.

The spectacular play of Williams has overshadowed the impressive year that has been turned in by true freshman wide-out B.J. Johnson. He's hauled in 35 receptions for a 14.6 yard average and two TDs.

As for Jammer, the super blue-chip junior has taken his game to a new level this season. Keep in mind, he came to Texas as a cornerback, but was forced to work at free safety out of necessity. Now back on the corner, he's clearly established himself as one of the elite defensive players in college football.

Another young standout worth noting is sophomore defensive end Cory Redding. The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder has proven to be a dominating edge performer, leading the Longhorns with 62 sacks and 17 tackles for loss.

LSU QB Booty coming of age
What a job Nick Saban has done at LSU! The Bayou Bengals are 7-3 heading into their regular-season finale against Arkansas at Little Rock.

The key of late for the bowl-bound Bayou Bengals has been the vastly improved play of junior quarterback Josh Booty. Regarded as the equal to Peyton Manning when he came out of the prep ranks, Booty returned to football after a stay with the Florida Marlins.

Now that he's shaken off the rust and has gained a comfort level with the new offense as well as the Bayou Bengals' supporting cast, Booty appears primed to establish himself as one of the top signal callers in college football next season.

Over the last four games, all LSU wins, here is how Booty has fared: Kentucky (15-of-33 for 225 yards, three TDs, no interceptions); Mississippi State (24-of-38 for 246 yards, two TDs, one interception); Alabama (18-of-31 for 275 yards, four TDs, no interceptions); at Mississippi (16-of-30 for 290 yards, one TD, two interceptions).

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