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Tuesday, March 8

Badgers, 'Cats in battle of unbeatens

NEWS & NOTES: Sept. 18

Editor's Note: Come along for the ride as Mel Kiper Jr. previews some of this weekend's key college football games.

In a battle of unbeatens, Arizona travels to Madison this week to face coach Barry Alvarez's Badgers (4-0), who have been extremely fortunate to come away with victories against Fresno State and Northern Illinois. The past Saturday against the Northern Illinois Huskies, the going was rough for Badgers standout RB Anthony Davis, who finished with just 49 yards on 14 carries.

Badgers QB Brooks Bollinger has proven to be a true winner (26-7 career record as a starter) with the ability to create opportunities with his legs. But the key against Arizona will be whether he has enough time to make things happen in the passing game. Last week, Bollinger completed 15 of 23 aerials for 207 yards but was sacked 10 times and tossed an interception.

Brooks Bollinger
Wisconsin quarterback Brooks Bollinger was elusive and accurate in slicing up West Virginia.
With highly regarded veterans such as Al Johnson and Ben Johnson leading the way up front, you would have to believe that the struggles of the Badger offensive line last week were something of an aberration.

On the injury front, it still looks like the target date for the return of star wideout Lee Evans is the Big Ten opener on Oct. 5. There's a remote possibility that Evans will see minimal playing time against Arizona, but with next week off, you have to believe the chances of that happening are slim. WR Darrin Charles, who sat out the Northern Illinois game with a sprained ankle, remains questionable.

As for coach John Mackovic's Wildcats, the hope is that the running game -- which struggled mightily in the second half last week in a win over Utah -- remains consistent for four quarters against Wisconsin.

Junior Clarence Farmer, who possesses as much ability as any RB in the Pac-10, rushed for 61 yards on 16 carries in the first half but was limited to just 18 yards on 17 carries in the second. For the game, Farmer averaged just 2.1 yards per carry.

With the inability to establish a running game, senior QB Jason Johnson was forced to carry the Wildcat offense. He came through with a huge effort, completing 24 of 35 aerials for 416 yards and a pair of TDs.

The underrated WR tandem of senior Bobby Wade and junior Andrae Thurman really stepped up, combining for 18 catches (each had nine) for 340 yards.

When you talk about teams with demanding early-season schedules, be sure to include coach Jack Bicknell's Louisiana Tech. Following this week's game against Penn State, the Bulldogs will have traveled to both Death Valley and Happy Valley, with another major challenge awaiting on Sept. 28 against Texas A&M at College Station.

Thus far, the 2-1 Bulldogs have received solid play from blue-chip junior QB Luke McCown, who has thrown for more than 800 yards and six TDs in three games while completing 57.4 percent of his aerials. While he has thrown four interceptions three against Clemson), two were off the hands of Bulldog receivers.

Bicknell has strived for more balance this season, with senior RB Joe Smith off to a fine start, rushing for 299 yards over the first three games. In addition to averaging 5.5 yards per carry and scoring four TDs, the 6-foot-1, 217-pounder has proven to be a multidimensional performer (team-leading 14 receptions).

Against Penn State, the key matchup will the Bulldogs' offensive line -- led by huge senior RT Damian Lavergne (6-5½, 350) -- against a veteran and talented Nittany Lion defensive front that features seniors Jimmy Kennedy, Anthony Adams and Michael Haynes. Thus far, the O-line has done a fine job, allowing just three sacks. However, on Saturday at Happy Valley this group faces its most difficult test to date.

On the injury front for Louisiana Tech, senior SS Michael John Leonard remains out due to a broken fibula he sustained during the season opener against Oklahoma State. The target date for Leonard's return is Oct. 19 at SMU.

The 2-1 Gators continue to shift personnel around in an effort to find the right mix at a variety of spots.

Offensively, the problem area has been the right side of the line. Randy Hand, a freshman, opens as the starter at RG, although senior David Jorgensen also sees significant playing time.

The Gator offensive line, which was overmatched against the fierce Miami Hurricanes, faces off this week against a completely rebuilt Tennessee defensive front that is minus John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Will Overstreet and Bernard Jackson from last season. Additionally, senior DE Constantin Ritzmann is out for the year with a knee injury.

For the Gators, they'll also need to generate a more consistent pass rush. They have totaled just three sacks so far. Junior DE Darrell Lee, sidelined for the Ohio game last week due to a collarbone injury, might see some playing time but is regarded as questionable going in.

Heading into the season, the big question mark on defense was whether they could adequately replace productive MLB Andra Davis, who finished 2001 with 109 tackles, including 12 for loss, three sacks, and six pass break-ups. Well, guess what? After the first two games against Alabama-Birmingham and Miami (Fla.), the MLB tandem of juniors Matt Farrior and Reid Fleming had yet to record a tackle. That brought about change, with senior Byron (Bam) Hardmon moving from the weakside to MLB, where he proceeded to record 17 tackles last week against Ohio. Sophomore Todd McCullough stepped in to Hardmon's old spot.

Another area the Gators need to shore up is special teams. Junior Sean Morton stepped in as the new punter against Ohio, while also taking over as the new holder for PATs and FGs. Thus far on the year, the Gators have missed two PATs.

This week against Tennessee, the Gators will likely match up their talented junior CB Keiwan Ratliff against the Vols' physically gifted wideout Kelley Washington, who returns after being sidelined with a knee injury.

As Ole Miss found out last week, any time you travel to Lubbock you could be in for a rude awakening. With most teams now operating on grass surfaces, the artificial turf at Jones Stadium can definitely present problems for the opposition. For N.C. State, this is its only game of the season on artificial turf.

Injury-wise, the Wolfpack are in decent shape, although they will be without starting center Jed Paulsen, sidelined for the second straight week with a sprained knee. Junior Brandon Sanders, a former walk-on, is filling in. At OLB, Avery Gibson suffered a high ankle sprain last week against Wake Forest that will keep him on the sidelines. Roger Pollard, an experienced junior, takes over that spot.

Texas Tech figures to be at full strength, with junior wideout Carlos Francis just about at 100 percent after sitting out last week against Ole Miss with a hamstring injury.

The battle-tested Trojans, who have come away with victories against Auburn and Colorado, have benefited from outstanding play by senior QB Carson Palmer, as well as the emergence of true freshman wideout Mike Williams.

While he has once again tossed as many TD passes (two) as interceptions this year, bringing his career totals to 41 TD passes and 41 interceptions, Palmer is completing 72.6 percent of his passes while doing an excellent job managing the offense. Decision-making is the big question with Palmer, and if he keeps making strides in this area, his pro grade will continue to rise.

Williams, a physically talented 6-5, 210-pounder out of Tampa, Fla., leads the Trojans with 11 receptions. In high school, he also starred in basketball (averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists as a senior). Senior WR Kareem Kelly has 10 catches.

Last week against Colorado, senior RB Justin Fargas carried just once and figures to be a bigger part of the equation as the weeks go along. Fargas is working his way back to 100 percent from a hamstring injury.

Anytime you lose a game like the Spartans did last week at home against Cal, when they turned the ball over two times inside the Golden Bears' 5-yard line in the first quarter, the last thing you want as a team is to play a weak opponent. The preference is to face a top-level foe where you can bounce right back, redeem yourself, silence the critics and in the process make a huge statement.

That's why facing unbeaten Notre Dame is just what the doctor ordered. Whether the outcome is what Spartan fans are looking for depends on a couple of things.

First, junior QB Jeff Smoker needs to bounce back from a sub-par effort against Cal, when he appeared to be too concerned with forcing the big play when it wasn't there. On the plus side, Smoker has managed to throw at least two TD passes in 11 straight games and for more than 200 yards in seven straight contests.

The key for the Spartans is balance, something they had last year when T.J. Duckett was carrying the overland attack. What might surprise you is that the rushing totals thus far aren't bad. In fact, Dawan Moss is averaging nearly 6 yards per carry, while contributions have also been made by freshmen David Richard and Jaren Hayes. The hard-charging Richard (6-1, 230) is averaging 5.7 yards per carry, while Hayes (5-9, 180) is averaging 7.5 and also operating as the primary kickoff returner.

This week against Notre Dame, expect to see more of Richard, who was regarded by recruiting guru Tom Lemming as the 31st best recruit in the nation last year.

Charles Rogers has hauled in 22 receptions for a 20.9-yard average, with 20 catches producing first downs. However, No. 2 wideout B.J. Lovett has just seven catches in the first three games. By the way, Rogers has now hauled in a TD reception in 11 straight regular-season games. Three share the record at 12, with Randy Moss the latest to do so in 1997.

As for the Notre Dame-Michigan State series, the Spartans have won the past five. Notre Dame has never lost to an opponent six straight years. The last victory for the Irish at Spartan Stadium was in 1994, by a score of 21-20.

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