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Front-Runner In a tour de force against Purdue, Ron Dayne of Wisconsin bulldozed his way to the lead in the race for the Heisman Trophy


The two players sat next to each other, eating lunch and quietly
sharing disgruntlement. Wisconsin senior tailback Ron Dayne
whispered to Purdue junior quarterback Drew Brees, "I'm really
sick of all this Heisman talk." Brees nodded and whispered back,
"I'm with you on that. It's too much."

We're down with their distress. After all, once Heisman hype gets
attached to a candidate, it becomes almost impossible to shake.
What's more revealing is that Brees and Dayne had that
conversation at a Big Ten function in August, before a football
was snapped this season. It has been that long.

Last Saturday evening, as Dayne was surrounded by reporters on
the grass in the middle of Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium after the
Badgers' 28-21 victory over the Boilermakers, a cluster of
Wisconsin fans in a corner of the field chanted, "HEIS-man!
HEIS-man!" A man in a red Badgers sweatshirt ambled past the
group and yelled, "If there are any Heisman voters among you, you
know what must be done." At that moment Brees muscled into the
mix and leaned toward Dayne. "Great game," he said. "You deserve
the Heisman."

The race that Brees and Dayne dreaded in late summer is nearly
finished, and like this college football season, it has been one
of the most inscrutable in recent history. No obvious Heisman
choice has emerged, no Charlie Ward of Florida State (1993), no
Danny Wuerffel of Florida ('96), no Ricky Williams of Texas
('98). There has been no sudden Superman tearing down the marquee
front-runner, as Michigan's Charles Woodson did Tennessee's
Peyton Manning in '97. Since the Seminoles' brilliant senior
wideout, Peter Warrick, whom most players and coaches regard as
the best player in the country, effectively removed himself from
the race by incurring a two-game suspension because of a
misdemeanor, there isn't a dominant player on any of the teams
chasing the national championship.

At last, however, there is a front-runner in the Heisman race. On
Saturday afternoon the 5'10", 260-pound Dayne drilled Brees's
Boilermakers for 222 yards on 32 carries and left himself needing
only 99 yards to break Williams's year-old NCAA career rushing
record (6,279 yards). Dayne's performance was a tour de force in
a high-stakes game that left Wisconsin (8-2 overall, 6-1 in the
Big Ten) in a tie for first place in the conference with Penn
State. Two plays in particular showcased Dayne's talents.

With 11:41 left and the score 14-14, Purdue sophomore linebacker
Jason Loerzel chased Dayne 41 yards down the right sideline and
into the end zone, certain until Dayne reached the goal line that
he was going to catch the load in front of him. "I was like,
'O.K., I've got him,'" said Loerzel after the game. "Then I
didn't have him. It's not as if he's fast, but in the open field,
when he gets rolling, that's a lot of weight behind him."

With the Badgers needing one first down to seal the win, Loerzel
stepped in front of Dayne on a toss sweep to the left side. Dayne
ran through him en route to an 11-yard gain that ensured Brees
would not get a last shot for a comeback. "He lowered his whole
body," Loerzel said. "There was a collision. My head was ringing.
I hope his was, too."

While Dayne may have taken the Heisman lead, the race isn't quite
over yet. Brees sensed as much after the game, in which he was
nearly as heroic as Dayne, throwing for 350 yards and one
touchdown and rushing for a career-high 85 yards and two
touchdowns. As Brees stood outside the Boilermakers' locker room,
he confirmed his congratulatory words to Dayne, but he was
fearful that he may have endorsed his candidate too quickly. "How
did Hamilton do today?" he asked a writer, meaning Georgia Tech
senior quarterback Joe Hamilton, who has been fighting Brees,
Dayne and now-slowed-by-injury Alabama tailback Shaun Alexander
for Heisman consideration through most of the season. Told that
Virginia had upset Georgia Tech 45-38 and that Hamilton had been
good but not spectacular, Brees sighed. "Before today I thought
Hamilton deserved it," he said. "Now I think it should be Dayne."
Long pause. Smile. "I think."

Truth is, four candidates are left: Dayne, Hamilton, Brees and
tailback Thomas Jones of Virginia. Here are the positives and
negatives of each of these players, who are listed in reverse
order of their probability of winning the Heisman.

--Jones. Plus: A 5'10", 205-pound senior, Jones leads the nation
in rushing, with an average of 165.1 yards per game. He gained
213 yards on 39 carries in Virginia's win over Georgia Tech. The
previous week he had 164 yards on 26 carries as the Cavaliers
took a lead into the second half against No. 1 Florida State. He
has stalked the Heisman by getting better with each game in his
senior season. "He's always been a good back," says Duke senior
safety Eric Jones, "but this year he's jumped up. He shakes and
bakes, makes guys miss, and he seems a lot stronger, too."

Minus: Virginia is only 5-4. Team performance matters. A Heisman
winner should make his team better, and the Cavaliers have lost
to Clemson and Duke. What's more, the ACC isn't as tough as the
Big Ten.

--Brees. Plus: There's no disputing the numbers, which, even in
Purdue coach Joe Tiller's Y2K offense, are staggering. Brees, who
announced on Monday that he'll return for his senior season, has
thrown for 333.4 yards per game and 21 touchdowns against a
brutal schedule in the strongest conference in the country. He
has also rushed for 160 yards. Yet the statistics don't fully
illustrate how capably Brees runs a complex offense. "With a
quarterback, I like to key on his face," says Ohio State junior
linebacker Na'il Diggs, "but Brees doesn't give anything away.
He's not antsy in the pocket, and he's got confidence in every
throw he makes."

Minus: "[Purdue has] played in three big games and lost them
all," said Ted Sundquist, director of college scouting for the
Denver Broncos, last week, referring to the Boilermakers' losses
to Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Now add the defeat to
Wisconsin. There have been some extenuating circumstances:
Brees's receivers dropped at least a dozen passes in the 38-12
spanking by the Wolverines, and a blocked field goal cost Purdue
a chance to go into overtime against the Buckeyes. Still, the
Boilermakers are only 6-4.

--Hamilton. Plus: Georgia Tech is 6-2 and remains in contention
for a New Year's Day bowl despite the loss of two tailbacks to
injury and a defense that has given up an average of 27.1 points
per game. "I don't even like to think where we'd be without him,"
says Yellow Jackets offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen of the
5'10", 180-pound Hamilton, who not only has thrown for 264.5
yards per game and 19 touchdowns but also is second on the team
in rushing, with 64.5 yards per game. "I don't want to say he's
our whole offense," says senior tackle John Carman, "but he's 99
percent of it." That offense is one of the most demanding in
college football, mixing the triple option with a four-wide
shotgun passing game. "It's phenomenal, what Hamilton does," says
Central Florida defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, whose Golden
Knights lost 41-10 to Georgia Tech.

Minus: Hamilton ran out of miracles in the loss to Virginia. In a
31-24 overtime victory over North Carolina on Oct. 9, he rallied
the Yellow Jackets only after he had two passes intercepted and
lost two fumbles. "He was tight," says Friedgen of that
performance. "It was the first week Warrick was out, and Joe felt
the Heisman pressure."

--Dayne. Plus: Barely a year ago Tony Dorsett's 22-year-old career
rushing record was one of the most cherished marks in college
football. The fact that Williams broke it last season doesn't
diminish the significance of the record. Now Dayne is on the
verge of passing Williams's mark. "Against Iowa's [weak] defense
he could get it in the first quarter," says one Purdue offensive
player of Dayne's prospects on Saturday. Dayne's work isn't
poetry. He hammers through defenders six yards at a time, with
occasional bursts through fearful, exhausted tacklers. "If you
get to him after two or three yards, you can knock him down
yourself," says Minnesota's Hoffman. "Five yards past the line
you need to get help." Yet underneath Dayne's hulking body are
quick feet, beating defenses that know he's coming at them.
Ninth-ranked Wisconsin has one game left and is gunning for its
second consecutive Big Ten title. Dayne, who surprised many
observers by staying in school for his senior season, has
impressed NFL scouts. "He's really stepped it up," says
Washington Redskins director of player personnel Vinny Cerrato.

Minus: Dayne is a lousy self-promoter. He's not little and cute,
like Hamilton, or ebullient and flashy, like Brees. Also, he
rushed for negative yardage in the second half of a 21-16 loss to

If the season ended today, Dayne would be our choice. However,
Hamilton has three games left to change our minds. The season's
uncertainty demands waiting until the last down is played. "I
like Dayne by a little bit," said Ohio State's Diggs before the
Purdue game, "but I'm not counting my chickens yet."

Nobody should.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Closing in After gaining 222 yards on Saturday, Dayne is 99 short of the NCAA career-rushing mark.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Let 'er rip Brees has big numbers, but he hasn't led Purdue to victory in big games.

"How did Hamilton do?" asked Brees, worried that he had endorsed
Dayne too soon.