Curtis Enis first announced himself to the football world 10
years ago when he was a pudgy fifth-grader haunting the
Mississinawa Valley High games in his hometown of Union City,
Ohio. After one particularly discouraging loss Enis sidled up to
the school's coach and said, by way of consolation, "Hang in
there, man, help is on the way." Sure enough, when he got to
Mississinawa Valley, Enis was thrice an all-state linebacker and
rushed for more yards than any other schoolboy in Ohio history.
That, man, was help.
Now a sophomore tailback at Penn State, Enis made a similarly
prescient statement to his coach in the moments before Sunday's
Kickoff Classic. "I'm ready," said Enis, after Joe Paterno
informed him of the first start of his career.
Enis then racked up 241 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries
in a bruising performance to lead the Nittany Lions to a 24-7
victory over Southern Cal. Enis's rushing yardage was a career
high, a Kickoff Classic record and the most yards an opposing
back had ever gained against the Trojans in their 104 years of
playing football. But most significant was what Enis's
performance did for the self-esteem of the Penn State offense.
With only one starter back on the offensive line and little
experience at the wide receiver position, it was assumed that
senior quarterback Wally Richardson would have to carry the
Lions through a transition year. Not so, not now. "We answered a
lot of questions today about our offense, and we'll answer them
all as the season progresses," Enis said after the game. As for
his own performance? "I wasn't surprised," he said, apparently
used to predicting his success. "My job is to just run the ball
hard and do what I'm supposed to do."
Yes, well, he was one of the few players on the field who did
what he was supposed to do. Both teams labored mightily, not
surprising since the game took place more than a week before
Labor Day. The sound blocking of Penn State's inexperienced line
and the wrecking-ball rushes of the 6'1", 230-pound Enis, who
averaged 8.9 yards a carry, were among the game's few constants.
The tone was set late in the second quarter of what was at the
time a 3-0 game. Alone in the flat after bursting through a
yawning hole, Enis absorbed a huge hit from USC safety Rashard
Cook and then thundered into the end zone for a 24-yard
touchdown. "I brought what I could bring," Cook said afterward,
with a grim shake of the head. "Most anyone else, that hit
would've dropped 'em."
"He's just very powerful and ran over us," Trojans coach John
Robinson said. "We lost that football game because of Penn
State's physical prowess in the running game."
Robinson's Enis envy is understandable. Southern Cal was held to
138 yards on 34 rushes by the spirited play of the Nittany
Lions' experienced defense. It didn't help USC that its two best
ballcarriers were suspended for the game. Junior tailback Delon
Washington, who juked his way to 1,109 yards last season, was
suspended five days before the Kickoff Classic for what was
nebulously termed a "non-football related" rules violation. He
is expected to be reinstated in time for Southern Cal's Sept. 7
game at Illinois. Senior tailback Shawn Walters, 14th on the
Trojans' alltime rushing list, has been sitting in the corner
with the dunce cap on since last September because it was
discovered that he had taken money from an agent. He'll be
eligible for Southern Cal's fourth game, one calendar year later.
With Tailback U stand-ins LaVale Woods and Rodney Sermons
looking more like Tailback P-U, the Trojans needed a big game
from senior quarterback Brad Otton, who last had been seen
throwing for 391 yards and two TDs in USC's Rose Bowl victory
over Northwestern. Otton was the only offensive first-stringer
from that game to start against Penn State, and the Trojans were
predictably out of sync. In the face of a heavy Nittany Lions
rush, Otton mis-fired on 17 of 28 pass attempts, and USC's only
score came with 29 seconds remaining, on a fumble recovery in
the end zone. "Luckily, we played so bad as a team, there's
enough blame to spread around so that no one unit gets all of
it," said Otton, in a twisted bit of positive thinking.
Enis has a sunny outlook of his own, and that's what got him
through the frustrations of his freshman year. Though he prefers
playing tailback, Enis was used at linebacker during the 1995
preseason. "I never thought he was a linebacker," Paterno says
now, "but we had plenty of running backs and not enough
In the 1995 season opener against Texas Tech, Enis had two
tackles. But with running backs Mike Archie and Stephen Pitts
both banged up, Enis was put in at tailback in the second half
of the following week's game against Temple, and he ran for 132
yards and three touchdowns, despite knowing only six rushing
plays. He went for 145 yards the following week, against
Rutgers, though he came off the bench because of Paterno's
reluctance to start a freshman. With Archie and Pitts on the
mend, Enis's role in the offense was reduced thereafter, and he
had only 25 carries over the final four games. Still, his 683
yards made him the first true freshman to lead the Lions in
rushing since D.J. Dozier in 1983, and he was named Big Ten
freshman of the year. But, says Enis, "last year was a year I
wasn't too happy about personally. But that's what makes people
strive to be better than what they are."
That philosophy shows just how much Enis has bought into the
Paterno School of Self-Improvement, but Enis's can-do attitude
predates his arrival at State College. After Mississinawa Valley
High he spent a year at Kiski Prep in Saltsburg, Pa., an
academic boot camp that he attended for a year because he didn't
meet Division I eligibility requirements coming out of high
school. Virtually every minute of Enis's day was regimented,
from the first class at 8:00 a.m. until study hall at 7:30 p.m.
When he left the campus to go into town, he still had to adhere
to the boarding school's coat-and-tie dress code. Of his year at
Kiski, Enis has said, "It was outstanding how they shape boys
into men. I loved it. Probably the best thing I ever did was to
go to Kiski."
Indeed, it has left him with a preternatural maturity.
Sequestered from the media most of last year because Paterno
doesn't like his freshmen talking to reporters, the Kickoff
Classic postgame press conference was Enis's first foray into
the glare of the national spotlight, and he handled it with
grace and humility. In between the "yessirs" and the "nosirs"
with which he starts his sentences, he compulsively gave credit
to his teammates and coaches. His only self-indulgence was a big
grin upon hearing for the first time how many yards he had
gained, thus revealing a mouth full of braces.
But before Enis begins to appear too cuddly, it should be noted
his nickname is Transformer, for the way he morphs into an
ornery cuss on the football field. "There's no style there, no
finesse, he just has a tremendous will to run," says Darrell
Russell, USC's preseason All-America defensive tackle.
"Obviously he wanted it more than we did. All of them did."
That has been the subtext of the last three seasons for the
Trojans, whose talent earned them a No. 7 ranking in the AP poll
going into the Classic. With the loss to the 11th-ranked Nittany
Lions, Southern Cal dropped to 7-8-1 against top 25 teams over
the past three-plus years. USC has now been virtually eliminated
from the national championship picture before the school year's
first keg has been tapped. (Classes at Southern Cal weren't to
start until Aug. 28.)
It certainly took some guts for the Trojans to travel across the
country so early in the year to play a formidable opponent
before such a hostile crowd. Of the 77,716 fans at sold-out
Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., maybe three or four
weren't rooting for Penn State. "I don't believe in scheduling
cupcakes," Robinson said after the game. "We're trying to build
a team and establish a foundation for the season, and to do that
you need to test yourself. Realistically, there are only three
teams that have a shot at the national championship anyway, so
any comment about this game costing us our shot is irrelevant."
Robinson might want to consider making it easier on himself,
though, especially with the heat he has been taking from USC
boosters, for whom an ideal season is to go undefeated, win the
national championship and then fire the coach. After last year's
8-2-1 regular season, the Daily Trojan, the USC student
newspaper, called for Robinson's head on a platter. (Never mind
that the Trojans were 9-13-1 in the two seasons before Robinson
returned to the USC job, which he had held with distinction from
1976 through '82.) It has gotten to the point that if Robinson
were to suddenly walk on water, the next day's headlines would
read, USC COACH CAN'T SWIM. "The expectations never end,"
Robinson says, wearily.
Penn State is about to find out about expectations. Coming off a
season during which the Lions had to scrap for a 9-3 record and
with as many as a dozen freshman looking to get significant
minutes, they had kept anticipation among their fans within
reason. The usual poor-mouthing by Paterno had helped. However,
a lot of doubts were eliminated after Sunday's emphatic win. The
offensive line came together quicker than expected, and junior
wide receiver Joe Jurevicius showed that he can be the playmaker
Penn State sorely needs now that Bobby Engram is playing for the
Chicago Bears. Richardson was quietly efficient--completing 10
of 18 passes for 102 yards--before leaving with a strained
groin, which he pronounced "no big deal" after the game. The
defense played with the skill you would expect from a squad with
eight starters back, and two newcomers, defensive end Courtney
Brown (a true freshman), and linebacker Brandon Short (a
redshirt freshman) look like potential stars. Then there was Enis.
He's not quite as brash now as he was back in elementary school,
but he does have one prediction. "I'm going to keep running the
ball," he says. "Hard."
Penn State foes should consider themselves forewarned. Enis has
a way of keeping his word.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Otton (10), who completed only 11 of 28 passes, got 86'd by Nittany Lions end Courtney Brown on this play. [Courtney Brown tackling Brad Otton]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Delivering as he had promised, Enis racked up 241 yards and three TDs with his hard-driving runs. [Curtis Enis in game]
Jurevicius (83) showed flashes of the big-play ability that Penn State fans feared the Lions lacked. [Joe Jurevicius catching football]