Like animals boarding the Ark, like bimbos in a beer commercial, 2004 Heisman Trophy candidates come in pairs. What's the deal with that? Why do so many of the top aspirants for this year's most outstanding player award have a teammate who's also in the running? Six of the season's strongest Heisman candidates are from three of the nation's top four programs--USC, Oklahoma and Cal--raising the question: How can an offense generate enough snaps and yards, such a superabundance of statistics, to fuel dueling Heisman candidacies? ¬∂ The answer: Offensive football is not a zero-sum game. The featured back does not prosper at the expense of the quarterback, and vice versa--not, that is, if the guy calling the plays is any good. Over the course of a season, a balanced offense works the way a supply-side economy is supposed to: The more yards Jason White or Matt Leinart or Aaron Rodgers throws for, the more lanes are opened for his star running back. One hand washes the other, and before you know it, it's Dec. 11 and time for both guys to fly to New York City. For an example, take a look at Oklahoma this year.
If a rising tide lifts all boats, Jason White's ran aground late last season. This after he had torn it up for 12 games, throwing an outrageous 40 touchdown passes against only six interceptions. But even as he was running away with last year's Heisman race--indeed, because of it--the Sooners' offense developed a fundamental flaw: Seduced by all those easy yards through the air, Oklahoma forgot how to run the ball. The Sooners paid for it with defeats in the Big 12 title game, then in the BCS championship game.
White has heard the grim numbers for going on a year: In the losses to Kansas State and LSU he threw no touchdowns and four interceptions, two of which went for backbreaking TDs. Just as bad, the Sooners, who'd averaged 159.0 rushing yards to that point, managed just 67.5 in those two games. Fans and media turned on White. "I'd be walking in a mall, and someone would make a comment," White says. "'Give back the Heisman,' that sort of thing. You hear something like that when you're with your family, it's embarrassing." On the other hand, he says, the abuse "gave me a reason to come back" as a sixth-year senior this fall.
Another reason was that help was on the way. In October 2003 Adrian Peterson, the pride of Palestine, Texas, and the nation's top schoolboy player that fall, was a guest of the Longhorns at their annual Red River Shootout against Oklahoma. Peterson was already leaning toward signing with the Sooners before he witnessed their 65-13 flaying of Texas that afternoon. Driving home, he got a call from a Longhorns assistant coach. "Coach, y'all got beat," said Peterson. "Y'all got beat baaaad."
It oversimplifies the case to say that once Peterson committed to Oklahoma, the Sooners' ground game was back in business. There was more to it than that. This year the offensive line returned intact, and White, whose 2001 and '02 seasons ended with ruptured ACLs (the left one in '01, the right in '02), was finally playing without pain.
In the second half of last season White's knees hurt so badly when he pushed off from under center that he was forced into the shotgun on most plays, putting a serious crimp in the offense. This year he's back under center: Bootlegs and play-action passes have returned to Oklahoma's arsenal. With White far sprightlier in the pocket, defenses have more to worry about.
Much, much more, for they must also account for the new guy wearing number 28. The day he arrived from Texas last June, Peterson was warmly welcomed by strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt, who with a smile informed the 19-year-old that he wished to time him in the 40. Now? said Peterson. Yes, now, came the reply.
"He'd just stepped out of the car," says Schmidt. "I like to do that to guys, challenge 'em, see what they can do." Peterson, he recalls, was wearing "these heavy-ass, funky old hightops." The kid ran a 4.41 and a 4.42, clodhoppers and all, and has yet to stop making jaws drop.
Just as Austin Powers misplaced his mojo, the Sooners' offense had lost a measure of its masculinity. The arrival of Peterson dovetailed with coach Bob Stoops's primary goal: reestablishing the run, which Oklahoma had shunted to the background when Stoops brought his wide-open passing attack to Norman in 1999.
Mission accomplished. Oklahoma rushed for a total of 1,270 yards in its first five games (254 yards per outing) of 2004. In the first half of the third game, against Oregon, starting tailback Kejuan Jones, a junior, wrenched an ankle and went to the sideline. That ding allowed Oklahoma to dispense with the charade that its feature back was anyone other than Peterson. After averaging 136.5 yards rushing in his first four games, Peterson went wild against his former suitors, churning for 225 yards in the Sooners' 12-0 shutout of Texas on Oct. 9.
By that time Peterson's name was showing up in various Heisman polls, provoking debate among followers of the college game: Would it be kosher for a kid so young to win the Heisman? No freshman or sophomore ever has. But now elite first-year players, guys who have been leaving early for the NFL, are taking on an ever-increasing role in the college game. Smart coaches figure, If I'm only going to have this guy for three years, I'm going to get the most out of him right away. So why not give a Heisman to a freshman? As Peterson himself said last week, "If you're good, you're good."
While Peterson may prove to be this decade's Herschel Walker, he also got a little help from his friends. The linemen favor zone-blocking schemes, but it took Peterson awhile to get the hang of giving the big guys time to clear a hole. "He's learning every week," says center Vince Carter, "and he'll be the first one to tell you he has a long way to go. He'll break an 80-yard run and come to the sideline and ask us, 'Was that good? Was I tight enough to the double team?' He's always looking to improve. That's one of the best things about him."
Until Peterson figured out the pass-blocking schemes, he'd come out of the game on throwing downs. Now he stays in. "It's funny," says White. "If he misses a block and I get hit by his guy, he'll come up to me and say"--White impersonates the humble freshman--"'Sorry, Jason.'"
Peterson may also be sorry for sucking some of the oxygen out of White's Heisman candidacy--about which the quarterback professes (convincingly) to care little. If Peterson gets it, "he deserves it," says White, who as a past Heisman winner has a vote. "I got one."
that stiff-armed man cast in bronze sits on the mantel at his parents' home in Tuttle, Okla., mocking White just a little, reminding him of how the '03 season turned to ashes. Recalling the final two games of last season, members of the Big 12 media made Kansas State running back Darren Sproles their preseason offensive player of the year. The guy with the Heisman even had to share preseason all-conference quarterback honors with Missouri's Brad Smith. Those slights did not surprise White, considering the abuse he'd absorbed in the off-season. "After everything that was said about me after the last two games," he says, "I have a whole new outlook. I'm much tougher mentally."
So he was happy to hand off the ball more at the start of this season, passing a couple of dozen times a game rather than the 32 attempts he averaged in '03. "If we'd won all our games last season," he says, "I might have felt a little constrained--you know, 'Hey, it worked last year.' Now I realize what we needed."
"Having the running game we do takes a lot of pressure off Jason," says J.D. Runnels, the Sooners' superb fullback. It also takes some pressure off White's bodyguards. On certain bootlegs and play-action calls, says Runnels, "the defense is so worried about the run game, we don't even have to block anybody."
Following Peterson's performance against Texas, opposing defensive coordinators started loading the box against the run, so White began airing it out. In Oklahoma's last six games he averaged 34 attempts and 289 passing yards. After throwing nine touchdown passes over the first five games, White threw 21 over the next six.
The Sooners' two-pronged attack was best exemplified at Oklahoma State on Oct. 30. The Cowboys stuffed Peterson in the first half, holding him to 53 yards on 14 carries. "So we threw on 'em," says White, who fired three first-half touchdowns. "In the second half they took away the throw, and we started running on 'em." Midway through the third quarter Peterson busted loose for a spectacular 80-yard touchdown run, and the next time he touched the ball, he went for 56 yards. He finished with a season-high 249 yards in a 38-35 win.
The day after that victory in Stillwater, the Oklahoma quarterback lost his grandfather, George White. The funeral was the following Wednesday in Defiance, Mo. A delayed flight out of Oklahoma City forced Jason and his sister, Jennifer, to drive all night. One of the speakers at the service dwelled on how proud George was of his grandson. As Jason's father, Ron, told the Tulsa World, "Jason lost it then."
Three days later, in front of 81,000 fans in Texas A&M's Kyle Field, on an afternoon custom-made for an upset, White did not lose it. Twice the Aggies scored on fake kicks. Three times the Sooners trailed by 14 points. Each time White brought them back. "When we were down, he never panicked," says Peterson. "I looked at him, and it made me more relaxed."
"It was weird down on the field," White recalls. "It was like the offense didn't feel worried." In the moments before Oklahoma's most crucial possession of the season, "Jason's voice was strong, his demeanor was very steady," says Sooners offensive coordinator Chuck Long. "You could just tell this was his moment." White threw five touchdown passes that day. The final one, a 39-yard strike on a broken play to receiver Mark Bradley with 6:43 left in the game, provided the 42-35 margin of victory.
Those two heart-palpitating road wins and White's performance in both--eight touchdowns, no picks--would have revived his hopes of winning another Heisman if he spent any time actually thinking about doing so. Instead, he is entirely focused on this Saturday's Big 12 championship against Colorado, and the game after that.
So who'll win the Heisman? Leinart may have pulled into the lead with his huge night against Notre Dame, a school that has lately been doomed to boosting the candidacies of opponents (see: Palmer, Carson). Peterson tied an NCAA freshman record by rushing for more than 100 yards 10 times this year, including three 200-plus-yard games. With a monster game against the Buffaloes in the national spotlight this Saturday, Peterson could pull ahead of the quarterbacks in the Heisman race.
White has 30 touchdown passes to Leinart's 28. White's total is 10 fewer than he had in '03, but he's been more efficient this year, completing 64.3% of his passes, up from 61.6%. Most important, he's poised to finish what he started.
For White it started 6 1/2 years ago. A day after returning from senior week in Canc√∫n after high school graduation, the 18-year-old passer paid a visit to his new coaches at Oklahoma. "I wasn't expecting to work out," he says. But after a bit of cheerful banter he was directed to the equipment room, outfitted with workout gear and directed to a sand pit where Schmidt was putting some grim-faced Sooners through a series of cruel drills.
White was soon one hurting pup. "I'm sweating out a solid week of fun out there," he recalls. Two hours later he stood in a shower stall trembling with fatigue and covered with sand. At home that afternoon he had misgivings about signing with Oklahoma, lamenting at one point, "This could be the worst thing I've ever done."
"Well, boy," said Ron, who pours concrete for a living. "I've always got a shovel out there with your name on it."
White didn't quit then, just as he didn't give up after his surgeries, just as he ignored those who wanted him to hang it up after last season. If there were a trophy for resilience, he'd have sewn it up by Halloween.
"I don't even care about the 11 games we just played," he says. "It's these next two that I want." His smile takes only a little of the edge off what comes out of his mouth next: "I want to shut people up."
Photograph by David E. Klutho
POWER OF TWO
The passing of White (18 above, and inset right) has been revitalized by the running of Peterson (28, and inset opposite).
DARREN CARROLL (PETERSON)
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MANNY MILLAN (TROPHY)