THERE ARE dayswhen Michigan State senior running back Javon Ringer is embarrassed by theattention that comes with being a Heisman Trophy candidate. And it is on thosedays that Ken Mannie, the Spartans' strength and conditioning coach, is morethan happy to offer some perspective. "I tell him, 'If you want to be leftalone, all you have to do is go out and have a 30-yard day,'" says Mannie."He'll look back at me, and I can see it in his eyes: That's not going tohappen."
Nevertheless, athalftime of Michigan State's 16--13 homecoming win over Iowa last Saturday suchan un-Heisman-worthy outing seemed likely. Often stacking nine defenders nearthe line of scrimmage, the Hawkeyes sold out to stop Ringer, who entered thegame averaging 179.4 yards, second in the country. With Iowa's standoutdefensive tackles, Mitch King and Matt Kroul, shutting off the interior rushinglanes, Ringer often had to bounce outside, where he was repeatedly gang-tackledfor minimal gains. He ran for only 49 yards through the first three quartersand was being seriously outplayed by Iowa's Shonn Greene, who would pile up 157yards on 30 rushes.
It wasn't untilRinger's 21st carry that he finally shook loose, skipping around right end andjuking a safety to the ground en route to a 29-yard pickup. He finished with 25rushes for 91 yards. "Javon's at his best in the fourth quarter," saysDan Enos, the Spartans' running backs coach. "He's one of the fiercestcompetitors I've ever been around."
The 5'9",206-pound Ringer so loves a challenge that he'll stop by Mannie's office to seehow his weightlifting scores are stacking up. If Ringer feels somebody hasclosed the gap too much, he'll submit to a new test on the spot. "When I goover [his] numbers with pro scouts, their eyes just start to bulge," saysMannie, adding that Ringer's 620-pound squat and 420-pound bench-press marksare the norms for linemen who outweigh him by 100 pounds. Spartans coachesoften find themselves telling Ringer to take it easy. After he tore his rightMCL five games into the 2006 season—an injury that doctors told him wouldsideline him for the rest of the year—he rehabbed so hard that he missed justfour weeks. "A lot of people don't want to do the work it takes to be thebest," says Ringer. "The pain. The burn. Those are things I enjoy. Oncethey're gone, I feel like I've accomplished something."
Ringer'smasochism has been a boon to Michigan State (5--1), which is off to a 2--0start in the Big Ten. But do the Spartans have enough balance to win aconference title? Ringer's 212 carries lead the nation, and he has scored 12 ofhis team's 19 touchdowns. The Hawkeyes hoped that by stopping Ringer they couldput the onus on Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer, but the steadyfifth-year senior picked them apart for 184 yards and a TD (which began with aplay-action fake to Ringer).
So even if theaerial attack hasn't broken games open—Michigan State failed to reach pay dirton three other trips inside the red zone—it seems capable of at least keepingdefenses honest. In the unsettled Big Ten, that may turn out to be enough."Javon's the key to our whole offense," says Hoyer. "He makes ushard to stop."
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HIGH MILEAGE Ringer leads the nation in carries and has 12 of MSU's 19 touchdowns.