Buffaloes' range of options now includes passing game

December 29, 1990|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Correspondent

MIAMI -- In last year's Federal Express Orange Bowl, Colorado suffered a similar fate to that met by Big Eight counterparts Oklahoma and Nebraska in previous years. Buffaloes quarterback Darian Hagan threw only 13 passes. Seven were incomplete. Two were intercepted. Four were completed for 65 yards.

And Colorado lost the game, 21-6, to Notre Dame, and its bid for a national championship.

So, as the No. 1-ranked Buffaloes (10-1-1) prepared yesterday to meet No. 5 Notre Dame (9-2) in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday, Colorado coach Bill McCartney left little doubt about his game plan.

"Colorado intends to throw the football," said McCartney. "There is too much evidence that you can't come into bowl games and be one-dimensional. You just can't survive. And the Big Eight has suffered because we've been, maybe, a little stubborn."

All attention then focused on Hagan.

"I'm ready to execute the passing game much better than last year," said Hagan, noting that Notre Dame has given up 267 yards passing a game and let opponents complete 63 percent of their passes. "After last year, we knew we needed to add another dimension to our attack."

It has been a year of transition for Hagan, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior from Los Angeles who was the top returning vote-getter from the 1989 Heisman Trophy race, in which he finished fifth.

A year ago, Hagan was a daring option quarterback who looked uncomfortable when he threw the ball. His feet rarely were set, and when they were, he threw off the back foot.

"We were basically a run-oriented team, and the pass was an after-thought," said Hagan. "This year, we're coming down to take care of business. And Notre Dame is going to have to respect both our running and passing game. If they don't, it's going to be a long day."

Brash talk? Here's why: Hagan completed 75 of 163 passes during the 1990 regular season for 1,538 yards. He threw for 11 touchdowns and rushed for five touchdowns and 442 yards.

Hagan missed nearly six quarters with ankle and shoulder injuries.

"I think he could have thrown for 2,000 yards if he was healthy the whole season, and that's comparable to any good passing team," McCartney said. "His ability to throw has given us more balance and some unpredictability."

Hagan spent a great deal of his off-season throwing under the supervision of McCartney. By the season opener against Tennessee, it would figure Hagan had worked out most of the kinks.

Not exactly.

In a 31-31 tie with Tennessee, Hagan completed five of 19 passes for 68 yards and was intercepted three times.

But McCartney wasn't about to alter his philosophy. The pain of last year's Orange Bowl still was with him.

"I think more than anything, Hagan was feeling a lot of pressure going into the Tennessee game," said McCartney. "It just took him a little more time to get on track. Plus, we had [wide receiver Mike] Pritchard at tailback, and that took something out of our passing game. Hagan always had a live arm and a nice touch."

So McCartney took it slow with Hagan. He could afford to. In the same backfield with Hagan was halfback Eric Bieniemy, who could pick up the slack until Hagan learned the offense completely.

It didn't take Hagan long. Colorado struggled to a 1-1-1 start, but soon afterward, Hagan started to flourish. In Game 11 against Oklahoma State, Hagan completed 12 of 23 passes for 237 yards and four touchdowns. A week later, he threw for 200 yards and one touchdown in a 7-for-14 effort against Kansas State.

Colorado, with Bieniemy, who gained 1,628 yards this season, is still a run-first, pass-second team. Only now, the passing attack is more than just a tool for third-and-long.

"There was never any doubt in my mind that the passing game would be successful as long as they stuck by me," said Hagan. "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 1,000 rushing and 1,000 passing yards. I think I really had a better year this year overall."

His play could cause Notre Dame problems. Last year, the Irish put eight or nine defensive players on the line of scrimmage.

This year, the Irish can't, especially because the secondary, with the exception of cornerback Todd Lyght, has been suspect.

"I don't think we have made much progress against the pass," Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said. "We have done a better job of not giving up the big play. We were never really able to have a set secondary. I can't fault the players or the coaches. There are just some years when everything doesn't mesh.

"Colorado has the ability and the talent to run with power with Bieniemy. They can run the option with Darian Hagan. And now they have the ability to throw better with Pritchard and with Hagan improved. They give us more trouble this year to defend than last year."

NOTES: Colorado LB Terry Johnson pulled a hamstring yesterday during workouts. Johnson, a senior, has started four games this season, including the past three. If he's unable to play, sophomore Chad Brown would take his place.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.