This time, Hagan and Colorado won't take a pass on !B throwing

December 26, 1990|By Scott Fowler | Scott Fowler,Knight-Ridder

MIAMI -- No longer does Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan -- toward the first puff of empty air, mimicking his distant cousin, Walter Payton.

Hagan still looks like he wants to take off, dancing in the pocket like a barefoot man on burning sand, but he quells the urge more often than not. He throws the ball now, and people don't wince and scream, "No, no, no!" when he does it anymore. At least not all of the time.

In last year's Orange Bowl, against Notre Dame, Hagan threw 13 passes. Seven banged into the grass. Two were intercepted. Four found their targets, for a measly 65 yards. A national TV audience realized that the Buffaloes suffered from the same embarrassing disease that had afflicted Oklahoma and Nebraska, the usual Big Eight champions, for untold years -- they couldn't throw. The result: If they got behind, they couldn't catch up. Notre Dame won 21-6, stuffing Colorado's No. 1 ranking deep into the Rockies.

On that grim New Year's night, Colorado's quarterback and coach made identical resolutions.

"After that game, we knew we needed to add another dimension to our attack," said Hagan, who was a disastrous 1-for-8 with two interceptions in the second half of the loss to Notre Dame. "We had to put a serious emphasis on the pass."

"More than anything, we knew we needed Darian to develop confidence in his throwing," Colorado coach Bill McCartney said. "We needed unpredictability. We had become too predictable by the end of last year."

So they worked. And they worked. Hagan threw passes in the winter on his own. He tossed thousands over the spring under McCartney's supervision. And when it came time for Colorado's opener, against Tennessee, the junior figured he was ready.

He wasn't. Tennessee picked off three Hagan passes in the first half. Hagan ended up 5-for-19 for 68 yards.

It would have been easy to junk the pass completely at that point. Colorado had run the ball 87 percent of the time in 1989, and that conservative philosophy had brought the team within one game of its first national championship. Hagan had rushed for 1,004 yards the season before and had thrown for 1,002 -- barely enough to keep defenses from stacking 10 men on the line of scrimmage. Hagan had finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a sophomore, so he must have been doing something right.

But Colorado didn't waver. Hagan improved slowly, feeling his way like a man groping for the light switch, and in November against Oklahoma State, he triumphantly switched it on. Hagan drilled four touchdown passes in that 41-22 victory and hit for 237 yards. By the end of the season, he had set a school record, throwing for 1,538 yards, and rushing for just 442.

Colorado's offense is still run-first. The Buffaloes' Eric Bieniemy drew the Heisman votes this year, finishing third after rushing for 1,628 yards and gaining 100 or more in 10 of 11 games. But Colorado's offense also became more balanced, throwing the ball 25 percent of the time, compared with 13 percent in 1989.

"There was never any doubt in my mind that the passing game would be successful as long as they stuck by me," Hagan said. "I haven't gotten as much recognition this year, but the reason I finished up high in the Heisman last year is because I had the 1,000-1,000 combination. I think I really had a better year this year overall."

Hagan whipped the odds to get here in the first place. He eluded the gangs and drugs that ruled Watts, the Los Angeles neighborhood where as a ninth-grader he once was chased for blocks by gang members who didn't like the red color of his Pop Warner football uniform. His predecessor at quarterback at Locke High School, Leon Otis, dropped out of Nebraska, returned to Watts and was murdered nine months later. A few years after Hagan made it out of Watts, helped by the strong will of the aunt who raised him and his huge dose of talent, Hagan's friend Tushan Wilson was beaten and kicked to death by a gang only a block from Locke High.

Yet Hagan escaped to Boulder, where he backed up quarterback Sal Aunese as a freshman. Hagan's first terrible experience with passing came in the 1988 Freedom Bowl, when he substituted for Aunese and immediately threw an interception that led to Brigham Young's winning field goal.

After that play, a downcast Hagan requested a switch to running back. But Aunese died of stomach cancer in the offseason, a death that Colorado players used to inspire them throughout 1989. Hagan replaced Aunese and led Colorado to its best season ever.

Now he's back, again with a No. 1 Colorado team in tow, again facing Notre Dame. But this time, the Irish secondary looks inviting. Notre Dame's defense is giving up 267 yards passing a game and letting opponents complete 63 percent of their passes.

"They're playing soft," Hagan has said. "They haven't played together."

"This year, we're coming down to take care of business," Hagan said.

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