SEATTLE -- Because of injuries to Rich Alexis, Willie Hurst and Paul Arnold, the Washington Huskies are down to one healthy tailback for the Rose Bowl.
So Braxton Cleman, who didn't figure in coach Rick Neuheisel's plans this season, will start on New Year's Day against Purdue.
"I just heard about it today," Cleman said after practice Thursday. "I'm very excited."
Arnold, who began the season as Washington's starting tailback, has been ruled out of the Rose Bowl because of a back injury that kept him out of the Huskies' final four regular-season games.
Alexis, a freshman who was Washington's leading rusher this season, has a partially separated right shoulder.
Hurst, the Huskies' No. 2 rusher this season, is still trying to recover fully from a broken right collarbone that sidelined him in November's Apple Cup against Washington State.
Cleman didn't figure to play much this season because of Arnold, Alexis and Hurst. He started against California at fullback because of an injury to Pat Conniff.
"A lot of people wrote him off," Hurst said. "He came from a small school and nobody really gave him a chance. But he's proved just about all his critics wrong."
Cleman was a running back whom Neuheisel inherited when he replaced the fired Jim Lambright two years ago. Lambright recruited Cleman from tiny Oroville High School, a Class 1A school in north central Washington.
Cleman got to start at tailback in the Apple Cup because of injuries and delivered 105 yards on 15 carries in a 51-3 victory over Washington State.
"Personally, it's been a very frustrating year for me," he said. "But overall you've got to look at it that we're 10 and 1, we're a great team and we're ranked fourth in the nation."
At Oroville, Cleman played before crowds of 150.
"I got a cheer here and there from my mom and dad," he said with a smile.
At the Rose Bowl, Cleman will carry the ball before about 100,000 fans.
"Oh, yeah, I'll be nervous," he said. "There's going to be a lot of people there, screaming fans everywhere. It's going to be something else. It's going to be very exciting."
The Huskies have taken it easy on Alexis and Hurst in pregame Rose Bowl practices because of their injuries.
"It's been a long time since those guys have been able to go in there and mix it up," Washington running backs coach Wayne Moses said. "We haven't had the luxury to have contact with them. So really we're kind of on pins and needles because this really is the first time those guys are going to actually get hit. Braxton has to come through."
Huskies offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson shakes his head about how it's turned out for Cleman at Washington.
"That is small ball and he's come a long way," Gilbertson said of Oroville. "Braxton has certainly had a good career and he's had some big games. Hopefully, Monday he has another great game."
That's what Neuheisel is counting on, too.
"I expect him to play great," Neuheisel said. "With the chances he's going to get, I expect him to make the most of them. He's worked hard and he deserves it."
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