Crouch marches to own rhythm

Nebraska's leader speeds past limits

January 01, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PASADENA, Calif. - Before every Nebraska football game, quarterback Eric Crouch and offensive coordinator Turner Gill have a little talk. Each week, the words are different, but each week Gill's message is the same.

"He'll tell me that I don't have to do anything special," Crouch recalled yesterday.

In his four seasons with the Cornhuskers, Crouch has rarely listened. Three years after becoming a full-time starter - forcing the incumbent, Bobby Newcombe, to wide receiver - Crouch has led Nebraska to 32 wins in 36 games.

Gill is hoping his advice goes unheeded once more. On Thursday, Crouch will quarterback the Cornhuskers in his final college game. Nebraska (11-1) will take on Miami (11-0) here for the national championship in the Rose Bowl.

Considering that the top-ranked Hurricanes are favored, a Crouch-led victory for the Cornhuskers would be a fitting conclusion for a player who overcame injuries earlier in his career and still fights the skeptics who wonder if he can be an NFL quarterback.

"I have confidence to throw the football," said Crouch, only one of three quarterbacks in Division I-A history to pass for more than 4,000 yards while rushing for more than 3,000. "If I've always been doubted, it's because of the system I've been in.

"I've had two shoulder operations [after his sophomore and junior years]. I think there's a little hole there that people can attack and say, `He's not a great passer.' I've had great opportunities to show people that we can throw the football."

But it is Crouch's ability to run out of Nebraska's vaunted option offense that worries the Hurricanes the most. They compare Crouch to former Virginia Tech star Michael Vick in the way he can turn busted plays into game-breakers.

That is what Crouch did earlier this season against Missouri, when a play that started out as a pass from the 5-yard line went awry. Offensive tackle Dan Vili Waldrop thought his quarterback was going to get dropped for a safety in the end zone.

"He juked one guy to get out of the end zone, and then broke a couple of tackles to get into the clear," said Vili Waldrop. "By the time he got to the 25, he was gone. I had never seen anything like it. That was a great example of what he can do."

Crouch's 95-yard run against the Tigers was part of a career-best 191-yard rushing performance and, along with a 40-yard flea-flicker pass he caught against Oklahoma, pushed him to the head of the class for this year's Heisman Trophy.

Those were only two of the plays Crouch has made this season that helped get Miami's attention.

"We just have to be good tacklers," said defensive tackle Matt Walters. "You have to follow his hips and not his head."

Hurricanes strong safety Edward Reed paid Crouch the ultimate compliment.

"He's fast enough to play for us," said Reed.

Crouch doesn't expect to beat Miami throwing against what could be the best defensive backfield in college football. He understands that the Hurricanes have more speed than any team the Cornhuskers have played this season.

"Our best opportunity to make anything happen against their defense is just to be physical," said Crouch. "That's what our offense has been all about. It's running, it's power football. You try to wear them down. We feel to win a national championship we have to run the football."

Deceptively strong at 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds, Crouch saw his reputation grow last season when he ran over an Iowa defender to bull his way into the end zone. It was one of an NCAA-record 56 touchdowns he has scored at Nebraska.

Nebraska coach Frank Solich said earlier this week that he changed the offense - the same offense run by Cornhuskers coaching legends Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne - to fit Crouch's talents. It is built around Crouch's blistering speed.

"I think he's the fastest guy we've ever had play the position at Nebraska," said Solich.

Gill, who quarterbacked the Cornhuskers in their 31-30 loss to Miami for the national championship in the 1984 Orange Bowl, said yesterday Crouch shouldn't be judged solely on his legs. Or his arm.

"Eric will find a way to give you an opportunity to make plays," said Gill. "I knew he was special watching him on tape while he was in high school. You really don't know until you see him in person specifically how special he is."

It took a while for Crouch to live up to his billing coming out of high school in Omaha. He suffered an ankle injury during his true freshman year and sat out after undergoing surgery. He played behind Newcombe as a redshirt freshman, but won four of five games as a starter when Newcombe was hurt.

"You saw he had a natural knack of making plays," said Gill. "That's something you can't coach."

Crouch hasn't regretted his decision to come to Nebraska, even though it might cost him a shot to play quarterback in the NFL. He wonders what it would be like to play in a pro-style system similar to Miami's, and kidded Hurricanes quarterback Ken Dorsey when they first met on the banquet circuit after the regular season.

"He asked me, `How would you like to be able to catch 40-yard passes?' " recalled Dorsey.

Aside from the Heisman, Crouch also won the Walter Camp Player of the Year award and the Davey O'Brien quarterback award. Dorsey, a 6-5 junior, finished third in the Heisman voting, but won the Maxwell Award.

Those trophies will be meaningless to Crouch if the Cornhuskers come up short on Thursday night.

"The Heisman is an awesome individual award, but the national championship has always been my first goal at Nebraska," he said. "It's probably one thing I've wanted more than anything. You have an opportunity to be the best football team in the country."

Nebraska has a chance to do that in the Rose Bowl, just as long as their quarterback doesn't listen to everything he is told.

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