Give me a bowl where the Buffaloes pass

MIKE LITTWIN

December 31, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

MIAMI -- It's a strange business, but Colorado coach Bill McCartney is talking about the forward pass as if it were an option his Buffaloes might actually expect to use tomorrow night against Notre Dame.

We know better, don't we? In the land of the Big Eight, home to Nebraska and Oklahoma and Colorado, the forward pass is still thought of as an exotic, trick play that won't ever really catch on. Most of the coaches are more inclined to try a fake punt. When you bring up passing to these guys, infantrymen to the marrow, you might as well be talking about Star Wars.

In the land of the Big Eight, they run the wishbone or some other option offense in which a very quick quarterback pitches the ball to a very quick tailback or hands it to a ferocious fullback or just keeps it himself. Once upon a time, it was the most fearsome attack possible. For that matter, so was the single wing. All over America -- I've seen it right on ESPN -- colleges have moved to the pro set, and quarterbacks, when they're not handing it off, will throw the football.

Colorado isn't moving to a pro set, of course, but McCartney, who switched to the wishbone in 1985, says his team will pass. He promises.

If there has been a conversion -- and the Buffaloes have passed the ball more this season than in recent memory -- it's because, well, when it comes to big games, the old ways just don't work anymore.

"One thing I'm convinced of," McCartney said after last season's loss to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, "when you come into these bowl games, the teams that have the greatest chances of winning are the ones that throw the ball."

And, so, he set a goal that Colorado would pass for 1,500 yards this season, despite possessing, in Darian Hagan, the best option quarterback in the country. He got it. Hagan passed for 1,538, but rushed for only 442 (down from 1,004) and completed only 46 percent of his passes. But one of his passes, against Nebraska, a team that wouldn't necessarily be looking for a pass, moved top-ranked Colorado back to the Orange Bowl in shape for another try at a national championship.

McCartney has never won a bowl game at Colorado, not in four tries. Oklahoma has lost two straight bowl games, Nebraska three straight. There is some suggestion that the game is, uh, passing the Big Eight by, especially the powerhouse teams. So, even Oklahoma has started to throw the football. And yet, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado finished second, fifth and sixth in the nation, respectively, on the ground.

"In the big games, against the powerhouses, you've got to keep them off balance," McCartney said. "So we have to pass more often against a team like Notre Dame."

When you pass, it's possible to come from behind, a problem for some of the Big Eight powers who tend to think a two-minute drill is something you buy at the hardware store. McCartney, who learned the game at the knee of Bo "I Don't Even Like To Pass the Salt" Schembechler, says he remembers an Orange Bowl when Michigan quarterback Rick Leach, trying to come from behind, threw 15 consecutive incompletions. We know how Bo fared in bowl games.

And, why sure, it keeps a defense off balance. That's the point, isn't it? Throw in the passing game to Colorado's offensive scheme, which features All-America running back Eric Bieniemy, and you've got a defense walking a tightrope. Look what wide receiver Raghib Ismail does for Notre Dame.

If Colorado does pass -- and why all the talk unless it's some smoke screen? -- it will be Hagan's responsibility. When Colorado came out passing to open the season, and with little success, it was Hagan who took most of the heat. It was also Hagan who went 4-for-13 with two interceptions in the last Orange Bowl.

"I know I can pass the ball," says Hagan, who, at 5 feet 10, wouldn't make a classic drop-back passer. "My teammates know it, and my coaches know it. I hope this game gets into a battle of quarterbacks. I welcome that opportunity."

Hagan is an interesting character, not least for his pre-game eating habits. He doesn't have any. He eats the day before, and that's it. This could be a real problem in the future for Hagan,

who has been drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays, who play just about every day.

"I drink water," Hagan says. "I might take some Alka-Seltzer. But that's all. I go to the pre-game meal, and I don't touch it. Sure, I'm tempted, but once I had an orange, and I threw up."

He says that in his freshman year, he threw up the orange on camera, which converted him forever.

A year ago, as a sophomore, Hagan finished fifth in the Heisman voting, empty stomach and all. This season, he gave way to Bieniemy, who finished third. Hagan says he doesn't mind.

"It just means we have more tools, more ways to beat you," he says.

Even the forward pass?

"I love it," says Hagan, whose top receiver, Mike Pritchard, has a broken finger, but will still play.

And McCartney wants to love it, too. Maybe Colorado will throw the ball tomorrow. After all, McCartney says he wants the Buffaloes to reach 2,000 yards next season in the air. He's got a 15-year contract, and if he keeps increasing the passing yardage each season, he'll have to switch to the run-and-shoot by the time he retires.

A big night in the air -- a winning night -- against Notre Dame could usher in a whole new era for the Big Eight. Quick, somebody tell Nebraska.

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