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Tuesday, March 8

Iowa's Russell emerging as top back

NEWS & NOTES: Sept. 25

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

When the Iowa Hawkeyes travel to Happy Valley this week to take on Penn State, they'll be close to full strength, with RB Aaron Greving the only key contributor viewed as questionable going in.

Fred Russell
Iowa RB Fred Russell (2) has scored four TDs and averaged 7.5 yards per carry so far.

Greving has been hampered by nagging injuries all year, the latest an ankle, but his absence has allowed Fred Russell to emerge as one of the top backs in the Big Ten. Russell is difficult to corral with his combination of super-quick feet and game-breaking potential.

In addition to the rushing exploits of Russell, the Hawkeyes can mix in talented all-purpose performer Jermelle Lewis, who also excels as a dangerous kickoff returner.

The key this week will be the matchup of the Hawkeyes' solid, well-coordinated offensive line -- led by center Bruce Nelson, OG Eric Steinbach and OT Robert Gallery -- against a Nittany Lion front four that features a triumvirate of blue-chip seniors (DTs Anthony Adams and Jimmy Kennedy and DE Michael Haynes).

A huge plus for the Hawkeyes thus far has been the outstanding performance of junior PK Nate Kaeding. He hasn't missed a PAT (19 for 19) or FG (8 for 8), while splitting the uprights on long-distance attempts of 49 yards against Miami (Ohio) and 51 yards last week against Utah State.

Minnesota's 4-0 start has slipped under the radar screen so far. The reason is the caliber of competition, including Division I-AA SW Texas State plus Louisiana-Lafayette, Toledo and Buffalo. This week, that changes, when coach Glen Mason's Golden Gophers travel to West Lafayette to take on Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium. Keep in mind, the Golden Gophers are 0-5 against Purdue under Mason, so a win here would be significant.

In the early going, Minnesota has been keyed by the exceptional play of junior QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq. Building on a strong finish from last season, Abdul-Khaliq is completing 65.8 percent of his aerials, with 10 TD passes and just one interception. Abdul-Khaliq also can beat you with his legs, as evidenced by his nearly 200 yards rushing on the season.

MLB Ben West, a former walk-on, leads the Golden Gophers in tackles.

In the backfield, Marion Barber III has been limited due to a hamstring injury, seeing action in only about a game and a half. I'm told he's moving closer to full strength and figures to be more of a focal point this week. With Barber not 100 percent, third-string tailback Terry Jackson has been a solid contributor, rushing for 347 yards and averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Thomas Tapeh has been utilized at both fullback and tailback, averaging nearly six yards per carry and scoring four TDs.

Abdul-Khaliq's favorite target thus far has been physically talented junior TE Ben Utecht (6-5, 245), who has few peers at his position in college football. He's hauled in 17 receptions for a 13.5-yard average and five TDs.

Up front, freshmen C Greg Eslinger and LG Mark Setterstrom have moved into the starting lineup. Both have held up quite well so far, with Eslinger considered to be further ahead at this stage of his development than former Golden Gopher standout Ben Hamilton.

Defensively, MLB Ben West, a former walk-on, leads the Golden Gophers in tackles, while SS Eli Ward has proved to be an opportunistic performer, breaking up five passes and grabbing two interceptions. Blue-chip senior CB Mike Lehan has yet to be tested, but that will change Saturday when he figures to be working against Purdue's excellent junior wideout, John Standeford.

Against Purdue, the key will be matching up against Standeford, plus the ability of the fast but somewhat undersized Minnesota defense to handle Purdue's overland attack.

With the SEC West so wide open, don't forget about underrated Arkansas, which is 2-0 after decisive wins over Boise State and South Florida. Houston Nutt is a top-notch head coach, and his talent base includes some big-time standouts with a future in the NFL. The Razorbacks had the week off in preparation for their SEC opener on Saturday in Fayetteville against Alabama.

Keep in mind, during Nutt's tenure the Razorbacks have the best home record in the SEC (25-3) dating back to 1998. The losses were against Tennessee last year and against Georgia and Ole Miss in 2000.

LB Tony Bua earned SEC defensive player of the week honors vs. Boise State.

Athletically gifted sophomore QB Matt Jones has always been a running threat, but the key thus far has been the strides he's made passing. He's completed 16 of 25 passes with five TDs and no interceptions.

With physically gifted RT Shawn Andrews (6-5, 333) leading the way, the Razorbacks feature a talented and deep backfield that includes Cedric Cobbs, Fred Talley and DeArrius Howard. Thus far, Cobbs is leading the Razorbacks in rushing, picking up nearly six yards per carry.

Defensively, DT Jermaine Brooks has been a force on the interior, while LB Tony Bua has been making plays all over the field. In the 41-14 win over Boise State, Bua earned SEC defensive player of the week honors (nine tackles, one interception, two stops behind the line, a forced fumble and a blocked punt).

The Razorbacks also feature one of the top defensive backfields in college football, highlighted by shut-down CBs Lawrence Richardson and Ahmad Carroll plus FS Ken Hamlin.

Wake Forest posted a big win at Purdue last week, evening its record at 2-2 heading into its ACC home opener Saturday against Virginia. This is an intriguing matchup, since Demon Deacon head coach Jim Grobe is a Virginia graduate and Cavalier head coach Al Groh once directed the Wake Forest program. Until last year's come-from-behind 34-30 victory by the Demon Deacons, Virginia had won 17 straight games in this series.

RB Chris Barclay was expected to redshirt, but injuries at running back gave the Wake Forest coaching staff no choice.

For the Demon Deacons to make it two in a row over Virginia, they'll need to continue to benefit from the superlative play of senior wideout Fabian Davis, while hoping freshman RB Chris Barclay can build on his fine performance last week against Purdue when he scored three TDs.

And while QB James MacPherson has been decent, there is certainly room for improvement.

Barclay is a 5-10, 175-pounder out of the prep ranks in Kentucky, where he was a 4.0 student. He was expected to redshirt, but injuries at running back gave the Wake Forest coaching staff no other choice but to get him on the field. Senior Tarence Williams, who saw action on 26 snaps against Purdue, is still working his way back to full strength from a broken foot.

As for Davis, he's been far more than just a wideout. The multitalented performer has picked up where former Demon Deacon John Stone left off, proving effective on reverses and as a dangerous punt/kickoff returner. On the defensive side, senior DE Calvin Pace has recorded two sacks and needs seven more to break Michael McCrary's all-time school record.

Even though Nebraska holds a huge edge against Iowa State in this series (80-14-2) and scored 42 or more points in the last seven games against the Cyclones, some observers will favor coach Dan McCarney's squad when they host the 'Huskers on Saturday. After all, Nebraska is coming off a 40-7 shellacking at Penn State two weeks ago, while the Cyclones are led by a Heisman Trophy candidate in QB Seneca Wallace.

The key for the 'Huskers obviously will be to contain Wallace, which is why they'll be calling on their two marquee defensive stalwarts, DE Chris Kelsay and CB DeJuan Groce, to once again provide All-American performances. Both are seniors and potential high NFL draft choices.

Iowa State last beat Nebraska in 1992.

Kelsay leads the Huskers with 4½ sacks and 12 QB hurries, with six of his nine tackles coming behind the line of scrimmage. Groce has already picked off four passes while starring on special teams. As Nebraska's primary punt returner, Groce is averaging a remarkable 23.9 yards on 11 returns (two for TDs).

By the way, Iowa State last beat Nebraska in 1992 (19-10). That turned out to be former 'Husker coach Tom Osborne's only loss to a team with a losing record. Last year, Nebraska ran the Cyclones off the field early, heading to halftime with a 41-0 lead on their way to a 48-14 win. In that game, Wallace completed less than 50 percent of his passes and tossed two interceptions. In Ames on Saturday, rest assured that Wallace will be looking to make amends.

On the injury front, both teams appear to be in good shape, although Wallace played with a cold against Troy State that has lingered into this week.

UCLA, which will be in bounce-back mode this week on the road vs. the offensive firepower of San Diego State, hopes to move to 3-1 with a victory over the Aztecs before opening the Pac-10 season at Oregon State on Oct. 5.

The key matchup in this game will be the physically gifted Aztec senior wideouts Kassim Osgood (6-4½, 210) and J.R. Tolver (6-1, 200) vs. Bruin cover men Ricky Manning Jr. and Matt Ware. Even though Manning checks in at just 5-9 and 180 pounds, he's a quality cornerback who shows excellent instincts and ball awareness. Ware, who I regard as the top overall defensive back in the sophomore class, shifts from free safety to cornerback this week in an effort to present the size (6-3, 205) to handle the dynamic tandem of Tolver and Osgood.

The Bruins will seek to establish a better pass rush.

The Aztecs have been competitive under new had coach Tom Craft in the early going, battling to the whistle against Fresno State and Arizona State before being upset on the road at Idaho last Saturday.

Offensively, all the talk has surrounded Tolver and Osgood, who have combined for an amazing 83 receptions (39 for Osgood and 44 for Tolver) over the first four games. The two are on pace to break the Division I-A record for most receptions and receiving yards by a wide-receiving tandem.

The reason the Aztecs are winless through the first four games is the severe problems on defense. They are currently ranked 62nd against the run, 100th against the pass, 87th in total defense and 99th in scoring defense (34.2 points per game).

The Bruins will seek to establish a better pass rush than has been evident so far. Of their four sacks, no player has more than one, and blue-chip senior DT Rodney Leisle has been shut out (although he leads Bruin defensive linemen with 12 tackles). Keep in mind, Leisle is a marked man each week, facing constant double teaming.

Change was in the works last week for South Carolina, as coach Lou Holtz installed freshmen Daccus Turman and Kenny Irons into the starting backfield. Turman, a 6-0, 220-pound fullback, had six carries for 39 yards against Temple last week, while Irons rushed for 30 yards on nine carries.

High-profile senior Andrew Pinnock, viewed as one of the Gamecocks' marquee stars going into the year, was taken out of the starting lineup against Temple and finished the game with zero carries. Against Georgia the previous week, Pinnock fumbled twice, with both turnovers occurring as the Gamecocks were knocking on the door at the Georgia 2- and 3-yard line.

In addition to his impressive overall skill level, Vandy QB Jay Cutler has emerged as a respected team leader.

While the Pinnock situation will be interesting to monitor in coming weeks, the major positive against Temple was the play of QB Corey Jenkins. He's always been an effective running threat, but against the Owls Jenkins showed marked improvement in his passing (18 of 23 for nearly 200 yards and two TDs, by far his best passing effort).

Against Vanderbilt this week, the Gamecocks must deal with a Commodore offense that has a pair of budding SEC stars: redshirt freshman QB Jay Cutler and freshman tailback Kwane Doster.

In the 45-38 loss to Ole Miss last week, Cutler threw for 207 yards and two TDs while adding 34 yards on the ground. He also took a pounding (sacked three times), but has proven time and again this season that he's one of the toughest signal callers you will come across. In addition to his impressive overall skill level, Cutler has emerged as a respected team leader.

Doster, an elusive 5-10, 190-pounder, accounted for 344 all-purpose yards against Ole Miss, which is an NCAA high for the year so far. At tailback, Doster carried the ball 15 times for 101 yards, plus returned eight kickoffs for 243 yards (a new SEC record).

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