Kiper: Top senior prospects for '03 (Oct. 10)

Kiper: Sensational 'Showdown Saturday'

Mel Kiper Archive

Tuesday, March 8

Battle of unbeatens headlines weekend

NEWS & NOTES: Oct. 17

Editor's Note: Come along for the ride as Mel Kiper Jr. previews these key weekend games: Notre Dame-Air Force, Michigan-Purdue, Duke-N.C. State, Washington-USC and Ole Miss-Alabama.

The Falcons are unbeaten at 6-0 and atop the Mountain West Conference. The Irish are also 6-0, and both teams have their sights set on a spot in the BCS.

John Navarre
Michigan QB John Navarre has thrown 13 TDs and just three interceptions.
All the talk about Air Force centers around QB Chance Harridge, and rightfully so. He's accounting for 102 rushing yards per game, while ranking second in the nation with 15 rushing TDs. He does a masterful job of directing the flex-bone (or triple-option) attack.

However, other key offensive components include versatile RB/punt returner Leotis Palmer and underrated junior OG Brett Heyser.

Palmer has rushed for 301 yards while averaging 11 yards per punt return. Heyser, at 6-foot-4 and 298 pounds, has performed at an All-American level on a week-to-week basis.

Defensively, the Falcons are led by super blue chip sophomore LB Anthony Schlegel (6-2, 244), who leads the team with 52 tackles -- which is 22 more than any other Falcon defender. Senior Eric Thompson has worked at both NG and DE, leading the team with five tackles for loss. In the secondary, the major headliner is senior CB Wes Crawley. He's pacing the Mountain West Conference with three interceptions.

The Fighting Irish enter this game at just about full strength. QB Carlyle Holiday is gradually working his way back to 100 percent from a left shoulder injury. Back in the starting lineup last week against Pittsburgh, Holiday completed 16 of 25 passes for 145 yards and one TD (and an interception). He also carried the ball three times for minus-3 yards.

The Fighting Irish hold a 20-5 lead in this series, with three of Air Force's five wins coming under coach Fisher DeBerry (and the other two while DeBerry was offensive coordinator).

The wins for Air Force happened 1982-85 and in 1996. And keep this in mind: The past two meetings have gone into overtime, with Air Force winning 20-17 in '96 and Notre Dame winning 37-34 two years ago.

When the Wolverines travel to West Lafayette on Saturday, they'll be attempting to snap a two-game losing streak at Ross-Ade Stadium. Overall though, Michigan is 8-2 in its past 10 games against Purdue. The two setbacks came in 1996 (10-3) and 2000, when QB Drew Brees guided the Boilermakers to a 32-31 victory.

While Purdue fell to 3-4 with an overtime loss last week to Illinois, each defeat has been by seven points or less. Despite hard-fought setbacks the past two weeks to Iowa and Illinois, the Boilermakers are reported to be in good shape physically.

Sophomore WR Braylon Edwards has stepped up and become the go-to option for Navarre.
Michigan on the other hand, sits at 5-1, with most of its games having come down to the wire.

This marks the 50th time Michigan and Purdue have squared off, with the Wolverines holding a 37-12 lead. Things have been tougher in West Lafayette, where Michigan is 9-6.

You have to be impressed with the makeup of the Michigan roster. Coach Lloyd Carr has a ton of talent all the way down to the freshman class, where potential future standouts such as QB Matt Gutierrez, WR Jason Avant, DT Gabe Watson and LB Jeremy Van Alstyne appear to possess star quality. Of this group, Gutierrez and Van Alstyne figure to red-shirt this season; Avant and Watson have already seen action. Avant has played some wideout and on special teams. Watson, at 6-4 and 350 pounds, has worked into the mix as a backup DT.

Carr must be pleased with the development of junior QB John Navarre. The 6-5, 238-pounder has thrown for 1,366 yards, completing 56.7 percent of his aerials. A TD-to-interception ratio of 13-3 tells the story of Navarre's improved decision-making. Both Navarre and underrated junior tailback Chris Perry have benefited from the solid play of the Wolverine offensive line. Of the top 10 linemen on the two-deep, the only senior is RG Dave Petruziello.

The big question going into the 2002 season was whether a big-time wideout would emerge, following in the footsteps of David Terrell and Marquise Walker. Thus far, sophomore Braylon Edwards has become the go-to option for Navarre. At 6-3 and 200 pounds, Edwards combines ideal size with all the necessary skills to rank as one of the elite wideouts in college football. Through six games, he has 33 receptions, a 16.5-yard average and seven TDs.

An unsung blue-chipper thus far has been senior TE Bennie Joppru. He has 24 catches, an impressive 10.1-yard average and four TDs.

Defensively, senior OLB Victor Hobson has been the ringleader, pacing the Wolverines with 44 tackles. Junior ILB Zach Kaufman also has drawn rave notices. In the secondary, sophomore CB Marlin Jackson is in the Ty Law mold -- although last Saturday, he had all he could handle with Bryant Johnson, Penn State's talented senior wideout.

In addition to Watson, other youngsters showing future star quality include three redshirt freshmen: DE Pierre Woods, DT Patrick Massey and ILB Scott McClintock.

The Wolfpack, 7-0 following a come-from-behind win over North Carolina, have a tune-up against improved Duke at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh before traveling to Death Valley on Oct. 24 to face Clemson in a key ACC showdown.

With a victory over the Blue Devils, N.C. State would tie its best start ever, which interestingly enough was the 1967 team that included current head coach Chuck Amato.

While Rivers and McLendon have stolen the spotlight, a major key to the success of the Wolfpack attack has been the stellar offensive line.
Physically, the Wolfpack are just about back at full strength, with LB Avery Gibson the only starter questionable for this week due to a high ankle sprain. Center Jed Paulsen returned to action last week, taking part in every snap against North Carolina.

Thus far, the highlight of the season has been the play of junior QB Philip Rivers and freshman RB T.A. McLendon.

Rivers leads the nation in passing efficiency, completing 64.8 percent of his passes. He has tossed 14 TDs and just five interceptions. Against North Carolina, Rivers was 16 of 25 through the air but threw just five passes in the second half (all completions).

McLendon and redshirt freshman Josh Brown did just about all of the damage against the Tar Heels. McLendon rushed for 164 yards and Brown added 88. At 5-11 and 215 pounds, McLendon blends quickness with power and determination, allowing him to pick up 295 of his 585 yards after initial contact. Thus far, he has reportedly broken 76 tackles. With 12 rushing TDs, McLendon needs only five more to break N.C. State's single-season record (currently held by Stan Fritts, 1972).

While Rivers and McLendon have stolen the spotlight, a major key to the success of the Wolfpack attack force has been the stellar play of a cohesive offensive line, featuring bookend OTs Scott Kooistra and Chris Colmer.

Meanwhile, Duke (2-5) won its season opener 23-16 over East Carolina after going 0-11 last year. The Blue Devils figure to be overmatched by the Wolfpack, but coach Carl Franks has put together a much more competitive squad, which appears to be developing an improved personnel base. Remember, 21 of Duke's 22 starters return next season, highlighted by RB Chris Douglas, FB Alex Wade, WR Reggie Love, OT Drew Strojny, DE Shawn Johnson, DT Matt Zielinski, LB Ryan Fowler and FS Alex Green.

Wade, who also operates in a one-back set, is coming off a 165-yard performance last week in the loss to Wake Forest. Douglas is a do-it-all performer, while Love has hauled in 18 receptions. At 6-6 and 300 pounds, Strojny has the physical skills and sound technique to rank as one of the top OTs in the country heading into his final campaign in 2003.

On defense, Johnson leads the ACC with seven sacks, while Zielinski (6-2, 290) has accounted for 11½ stops behind the line of scrimmage. And Green has three interceptions.

After a satisfying come-from-behind victory over Cal last week, the Trojans face Washington (4-2) at the Coliseum, followed by a tough road trip to Oregon on Oct. 26. And they'll have to do so with a banged-up squad that has endured a brutally tough schedule since the season opener against Auburn on Sept. 2. Since then, USC (4-2) has banged heads with Colorado, Kansas State, Oregon State, Washington State and Cal.

The cumulative effect of such a difficult slate figures to be evident as the Trojans hit the season's midway point on Saturday. The leader of the Trojan defense, senior SS Troy Polamalu, returned to practice this week but is still reported to be less than 100 percent. Whether he'll start against Washington is debatable, although it appears he'll see action.

While Polamalu's return is huge, the Trojans must shift some defensive personnel to make up for the injury loss of standout sophomore DT Shaun Cody. With Cody out for the year due to a knee injury suffered against Cal (torn ACL), Mike Patterson is moving from NG to DT, with Bernard Riley stepping in at NT.

Since the end of last season, the Trojans have lost five CBs to graduation or injury.
Over the past year, the Trojans have dealt with key graduation losses at CB, including Kris Richard, Chris Cash and Antuan Simmons. Complicating matters more was the August injury of projected starter Kevin Arbet, who was lost for the season.

Then came the season-ending knee injury of starter Ronald Nunn vs. Kansas State on Sept. 21. So, since the end of last season, the Trojans have lost five CBs to graduation or injury.

And this week against Washington, another change will take place when converted WR Marcell Allmond (he switched positions in the spring) moves ahead of William Buchanon as the starting CB opposite Darrell Rideaux.

The injury problems aren't relegated to the defense alone. On the offensive line, starting LT Jacob Rogers is out of action due to a sprained knee. Stepping in will be junior Eric Torres, who started last year at RT.

Getting away from the injury situation, USC coach Pete Carroll and his staff have to be thrilled with the play of freshman sensation Mike Williams. The physically gifted 6-5, 210-pound wideout is fast developing into one of the most feared skill-position performers in the Pac-10.

Outside of a sub-par early effort against Kansas State (when he dropped four passes), Williams has been nearly impossible to contain, hauling in 28 passes for a 15.5-yard average and a team-leading four TD grabs.

Senior QB Carson Palmer delivered a number of key throws against Cal as the Trojans rallied from an early 21-3 deficit. He's completing an impressive 60 percent of his aerials and has thrown nine TDs (plus six interceptions).

This week, Palmer attacks a Washington secondary that has struggled thus far. Arizona's Jason Johnson and Michigan's John Navarre enjoyed career passing-yard days vs. the Huskies, while Cal's Kyle Boller also had great success. The Huskies are dead last in the Pac-10 in pass defense, allowing an average of 281.8 yards per game.

The problem hasn't been the lack of a pass rush. The Huskies are fourth in the Pac-10 with 22 sacks, so they are generating some heat on opposing QBs. But poor tackling in the deep patrol has been a problem.

Washington has one of the nation's elite pass-catch tandems in Cody Pickett-to-Reggie Williams, but turnovers at critical moments have hurt the Huskies. They've fumbled 17 times, losing 10.

Last year, Ole Miss won 27-24 at Oxford, marking the first time the Rebels had beaten Alabama since 1988.

Alabama sophomore Antwan Odom has established himself as one of the SEC's elite young defensive players.
The Crimson Tide have a potential dual-QB situation developing, with Tyler Watts working his way back from a foot injury he sustained against Southern Mississippi on Sept. 21. While he has been sidelined, redshirt freshman Brodie Croyle has stepped in and done a commendable job, flashing future star quality. Overall, though, Croyle is completing just 46.7 percent of his aerials, with three TD passes and four interceptions.

Defensively, the front four dominate the headlines for Alabama, with seniors Jarret Johnson, Kenny King and Kindal Moorehead getting most of the attention.

But talented third-year sophomore Antwan Odom (6-5, 285) has been a key performer and underrated member of the Crimson Tide defense. Last year, Odom suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in just the second game. This year, he has been a major force, establishing himself as one of the SEC's elite young defensive players.

Through six games, Odom leads the Crimson Tide with four sacks and has recorded three tackles for loss, five QB pressures, a forced fumble and a blocked field goal.

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