A Changed Man
Making the most of a second chance, Virginia Tech back Branden Ore has lost hisbad attitude and found a starring role
TO HEAR folks at Virginia Tech tell the story, there's little about the BrandenOre of 2006 that resembles the angry and undisciplined player who was such adisruptive force last fall. Gone is the malcontent who was consistent only inhis tardiness (both for meetings and for classes) and who sulked over hisplaying time as he backed up senior tailbacks Mike Imoh and Cedric Humes. Gonetoo are the excuses Ore made to frustrated coaches for his behavior. Insteadhe's become a model teammate and a conscientious worker who takesresponsibility for his actions. "I've never seen such a change in a personin such a short time," says running backs coach Billy Hite. "Every timeI see him, I want to hug him."
The change hasnot only saved Ore's football career but also given the Hokies' rebuildingoffense a budding star to lean on. That was evident last Saturday inBlacksburg, where Ore led 11th-ranked Tech (4--0) to a 29--13 victory overCincinnati. With his team struggling on offense and trailing 13--12 midwaythrough the third quarter, Hokies coach Frank Beamer put the game in Ore'shands, giving the ball to the 5'11", 202-pound sophomore on 13 of the next18 plays. Until that point Ore had been held to 22 yards on eight carries, butthen he exploded, finishing the game with 170 yards on 25 rushes and scoring acrucial fourth-quarter touchdown. "It was the first time all year that Ifelt like I was watching Virginia Tech football," said Beamer after thegame.
It took adramatic intervention by Hite to start Ore's turnaround. Last Jan. 6 Hitetraveled to Chesapeake, Va., in a last-ditch effort to salvage the runningback's career. In a conference room at the Holiday Inn, Hite laid out thesituation in stark terms to Ore; his mother, Karey; his cousin Mike Toliver;and brother, James, as well as to Cadillac Harris, Ore's coach at Indian RiverHigh. "I reserved the room for 30 minutes, and we were still there after90," says Hite. "I told them that unless Branden changed, he was goingto be out of this school. The more I talked, the more he slumped in hischair."
Ore, who wassecond on the team with 647 rushing yards in 2005, was coming off surgery torepair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Hite suggested that he take thesemester off to rehab the shoulder and "get his head straight." Thecoach arranged for him to get a job with a youth charity in Blacksburg, butwhen his no-nonsense mother discovered that it would require Branden to workonly three days a week, she insisted he take a job she lined up for himinstead. That's how Ore came to spend his spring working eight-hour days in aChesapeake cold-storage warehouse, packing and loading crates for shipment."Whatever you see people wearing in a snowstorm, that's what I had on,"he says. "It was a reality check, and it's the best thing that everhappened to me."
Says Hite,"He finally realized that football was his ticket in life."
Ore called Hitein April and promised to return to campus a changed man. He has been true tohis word, arriving 15 minutes early to workout sessions, meetings and evenmedia interviews. He took 12 credits in summer school, attending every classand making up the course work he'd missed in the spring. His play has beensparkling. He leads the ACC in rushing, at 99.8 yards per game, and has alreadyscored seven touchdowns. "He has the tools to be one of the best we'vehad," says Hite. "He can catch, he's got great vision, and his jump cutis as good as any I've seen."
Tech is breakingin eight new starters on offense, including quarterback Sean Glennon and threemembers of the line. Ore's emergence, a soft early schedule—the first threegames were against Northeastern, North Carolina and Duke—and a dominant defensehave allowed the other rookies to get comfortable before the ACC season beginsin earnest this week against Georgia Tech. "Being able to run the ballgives the line confidence, which we desperately need," says Beamer.
For his part,Ore says he isn't worried about his inexperienced teammates. After all, if hecan come so far so fast, why can't they?
A Bowl in theCadets' Future?
Football fans inTexas are already aware, but it's time the rest of the country started payingattention to the revival that Bobby Ross is overseeing at Army. Playing in theLone Star State for the second week in a row, the Cadets clipped Baylor,27--20, in overtime last Saturday to improve to 2--2. That's the first time in10 years that they had a record as good as .500 after four games. The highlightof the victory was Army's conversion of a fourth-and-one play in the extraperiod, a gutsy call considering Ross made it seven days after his team wasstuffed at Texas A&M's two-yard line on the final play of a 28--24 loss."We told Coach we could get [the first down]," said quarterback DavidPevoto, after the win over Baylor. "We wanted to prove we could getit."
That's the sortof mental toughness Ross has been working to instill in a program that had gone5--42 in the four years before he arrived in 2004, then lost 15 of its first 17under its new coach. But since last October the Cadets have won six of nine,including victories on the road over Air Force and Akron. All four games thisseason have been decided by eight points or fewer. "It's rewarding in thesense that we're more competitive but frustrating to get as close as we didagainst A&M and not win," says defensive coordinator John Mumford, inhis seventh year at West Point. "Our players have really bought into whatcoach Ross is doing."
Ross'shard-nosed style is evident on both sides of the ball. Because the 4--3 defenseis manned mostly by undersized players who tend to be a step slower than thecompetition, Army employs a bend-but-don't break philosophy. "Trading fiveyards for a headache," is how Mumford describes it. Led by hard hitterssuch as defensive end Cameron Craig and linebacker Cason Shrode, the Cadetsranked 37th in total defense last year after finishing last in the country inRoss's first season. This year they rank 57th.
The mostsurprising aspect of the revival, though, is that Army is succeeding on offensewithout relying heavily on the option running game that has proved sosuccessful at fellow service academies Air Force and Navy. Ross installed anoffense with multiple sets, which has not only helped the running attack butalso opened up the passing game. In 2003 the Cadets had the worst rushingoffense in Division I-A, but they ranked 36th and 66th in their first twoseason under Ross and are 55th this season. Against Baylor, Pevoto, a 6'5",229-pound junior who is in his first year as a starter, completed 15 of 22passes for 138 yards and a touchdown.
Hoping to cashin on Army's first postseason appearance since 1996, the Poinsettia Bowlrecently invited the Cadets to the Dec. 19 game in San Diego, on the conditionthat they win the requisite six games to become bowl-eligible. Yes, there aredates against 17th-ranked TCU on Oct. 21 and No. 12 Notre Dame on Nov. 18, butfirst come winnable games against Rice, VMI and Connecticut the next threeSaturdays.
Huskies ShowSome Bite
That roar youheard from the Pacific Northwest last Saturday was the sound of Washingtonturning the corner. After trailing visiting UCLA 16--0 late in the first half,the Huskies stormed back for a 29--19 victory. While that rally stands as theseventh-largest comeback in the school's history, it is by far the biggest winin the tenure of second-year coach Tyrone Willingham.
At 3--1Washington has matched its win total from the previous two seasons combined.While Willingham won just twice in '05, there were subtle signs of a comingchange. Facial hair disappeared—Willingham disapproved. Team meetings were heldat 6:30 a.m. Focus and accountability became buzzwords.
And Willinghamput the ball in the hands of spectacularly dreadlocked fifth-year seniorquarterback Isaiah Stanback, a graduate of Seattle's Garfield High. A dazzlingdual threat with 10.4 speed in the 100, Stanback was both exciting and erraticin 11 starts last season, throwing for nine touchdowns and six interceptionswhile completing 54.2% of his passes. While his completion percentage is onlymildly improved—it is hovering just under 57%—he has thrown six touchdownpasses and just two interceptions this year. (He has also rushed for 280 yardsand a pair of scores.) Perhaps more important, when his teammates absolutelyhad to have his leadership against UCLA, he delivered. With the Huskies in that16--0 hole, Stanback engineered a nine-play, 92 yard drive for a touchdown thatgave them hope going into halftime.
Just before histeam took the field for the third quarter, the usually mild-mannered Willinghampointedly and angrily asked his players if they were afraid. "When someonecalls you out for being afraid," Stanback said on Sunday, "any man hasto respond."
Jittery andineffective for most of the first half, Stanback was soothed by a halftimeconfab with former Huskies quarterback Warren Moon. "He told me to calmdown and to just start hitting my easy throws and that everything else wouldstart to flow," he said.
Moon got thatright: Stanback threw three touchdown passes in the second half. Of his team's249 yards of total offense in the game, Stanback accounted for 248.
Stanback hadhelp from the Huskies' defense, which yielded a mere five first downs in thesecond half, and from the loudest crowd a Washington team has played beforesince at least 2003. There's bad news for teams coming into Seattle. AsStanback said, "Husky Stadium is up and rocking again."
Arkansas andAlabama went to two overtimes in last Saturday's 24--23 Hogs victory—courtesyof a successful extra point by Jeremy Davis (right) and a missed one by CrimsonTide kicker Leigh Tiffin. The SEC programs have been nearly at opposite ends ofthe spectrum when it comes to playing overtime. Here are the teams that havethe best and worst OT records since Division I A instituted the tie-breakingprocedure in 1996 (minimum five wins or losses).
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
New Mexico State
LEE COLEMAN/WIREIMAGE.COM (ORE)
CAREER DAY Ore ran for 170 yards as the Hokies rallied to beat Cincinnati.
JOHN DAVID MERCER/PRESS-REGISTER/AP (DAVIS)
DUANE A. LAVERTY/WACO TRIBUNE HERALD/AP (ARMY)
CORPS VALUES The Cadets were all smiles after their overtime upset of Baylor improved Army's record to .500.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
FEAR FACTOR The Huskies responded to a challenge from Willingham at halftime.