Michigan State's Smith hasn't lost touch

Smoker, team turnarounds further bolster reputation

National notebook

College Football

October 10, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

In hiring John L. Smith away from Louisville after last season, Michigan State was hoping the coach with the most common of names would continue his nearly unblemished record of turning around losing teams and developing outstanding quarterbacks.

Six games into his tenure in East Lansing, Smith has kept that reputation intact.

Smith has quickly cleaned up the mess of a 2002 season during which quarterback Jeff Smoker entered a rehabilitation center after admitting to substance abuse and coach Bobby Williams was fired after nine games. The Spartans finished 4-8, but, with mostly the same cast, they are 5-1 entering tomorrow's game at Illinois.

"What we've tried to do is come in and be ourselves," Smith, 54, said earlier this week. "We have a different set of expectations; not only on the field, but off the field. We've tried to change some attitudes and how we go about our daily lives, on doing things right all the time."

This isn't new territory for Smith. At each of his previous stops during a 14-year career as a Division I head coach, Smith has done more rebuilding than Bob Vila. Though he didn't turn Idaho, Utah State or Louisville into dynasties, Smith's teams won six conference titles and went to bowl games 11 times.

"Anytime you go into a place, part of that group is going to say, `Whatever he [the coach] says is gospel,' " said Smith. "There's going to be a bunch, probably the majority, that says, `He's going to have to prove it to us.' And then there are going to be some who are not going to believe it."

Smith had a major issue coming in - how he was going to handle Smoker. The tough love the new coach administered in dealing with the talented senior who missed the last five games a year ago has gone a long way in reviving the quarterback's career while bringing immediate respect from the other players.

Returning to campus after a two-week stay in a Detroit clinic, Smoker had to work to get his job back. He was relegated to second- and third-team status during the spring and wasn't told he would start the season opener against Western Michigan until two weeks before the game.

"It showed that Coach really cared about the players, that he cared about me, and that feels good," said Smoker, who is no longer receiving counseling. "I definitely am refocused now and look at football a whole different way - take advantage of every opportunity I get."

He has certainly done that. Smoker leads the Big Ten in passing with a little more than 250 yards a game and is completing better than 64 percent of his passes. He finished 32 of 40 for 351 yards and two touchdowns in last week's 31-3 win over Indiana.

Smoker is not the only reason for the Spartans' hot start. The defense, which was ranked 110th in Division I-A against the run last season by surrendering 213.8 yards a game, is fifth in rushing defense (64.8 yards a game). Michigan State also leads the nation in sacks with 28.

Not saying, `Hi, Mom'

The television cameras that panned the Washington sideline during the second half of last week's 46-16 defeat at UCLA didn't paint a very pretty picture of first-year coach Keith Gilbertson's team.

The images showed the Huskies did something they hadn't accomplished against the Bruins: They got into each other's faces. It didn't help that Washington's 16-7 halftime lead was eviscerated when the Huskies gave up 30 straight points.

"It wasn't finger-pointing," said defensive tackle Terry Johnson. "It was a situation where you feel helpless. You feel like your hands are tied. You feel, `I can watch, but I can't go recover a fumble.' When you feel helpless, you get frustrated."

Said Gilbertson: "There will not be any more hysterics on our sidelines. That's going to stop."

As Rick Neuheisel might say, you can bet on it.

Michigan's Perry fades

After the first three games this season, Michigan looked like a contender for the national championship and tailback Chris Perry appeared to be one of the front-runners for the Heisman Trophy.

Losses to Oregon and Iowa in the past three weeks have taken the Wolverines out of the hunt for the Sugar Bowl, and Perry's numbers have dropped dramatically.

After rushing for 549 yards and 10 touchdowns the first three weeks, he has dropped to 225 yards and one touchdown the past three. Part of the problem has been Michigan has had to play catch-up in both losses.

Perry still ranks second in the country in rushing to Oregon State's Steven Jackson. The junior tailback has led the Beavers to a 5-1 start by rushing for 877 yards and nine touchdowns. He has also caught 18 passes for 203 yards and one score.

Oregon State coach Mike Riley has a simple solution for getting Jackson some more attention for the Heisman.

"We'll just give him the ball some more," Riley said. "We have a nice thing going as a team, and I think the best way for something like that to happen is for us to keep playing well."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Three games to watch

Miami at Florida State: The second-ranked Hurricanes have teetered twice already, both times at home. With tailback Frank Gore out after suffering a season-ending knee injury in last week's 22-20 escape against West Virginia, Miami could be in for problems against the No. 5 Seminoles.

Oklahoma-Texas in Dallas: This Big 12 rivalry has become a bit one-sided, with the Sooners winning all three since Bob Stoops arrived in Norman. Oklahoma's offense has become as dominant as its defense, but the Longhorns should be a load with quarterback Chance Mock and All-American wide-out Roy Williams.

Ohio State at Wisconsin: The No. 3 Buckeyes go on the road for the first time this year and will have quarterback Craig Krenzel back after he missed a month with an elbow injury. The Badgers will need tailback Anthony Davis back at full strength to have any chance to end Ohio State's 19-game winning streak.

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