Originally created 01/01/02

Running backs loom large in Fiesta matchup



TEMPE, Ariz. -- When it comes to carrying the football, Colorado counts on a herd of Buffaloes and Oregon a dynamic duo of Ducks.

No fewer than six running backs could loom large in Tuesday's Fiesta Bowl.

Third-ranked Colorado uses four tailbacks in an offense that ranks eighth nationally in rushing at 228.5 yards per game. Three of them - Chris Brown, Cortlen Johnson and Bobby Purify - have at least three 100-plus-yard games this season. A groin injury early this season sidelined redshirt freshman Marcus Houston, who had a 16-yard touchdown run against Oklahoma State.

"We're just in a situation where we have four really good backs and we're not redshirting any of them," Colorado coach Gary Barnett said. "We have four guys who have worked really hard, have fit our system and have all had hot days. I don't think we have any more running backs than any other team, we just play more of them,"

Second-ranked Oregon built its reputation on passing, but this season's Ducks have two 1,000-yard rushers - Maurice Morris (1,010) and Onterrio Smith (1,031).

"They took more pressure off me than I've ever experienced," quarterback Joey Harrington said. "Having two 1,000-yard rushers behind me has put me in a position where I don't have to make plays all the time. It was terrific going out there and knowing I wasn't going to have to wing it every time."

Operating behind an offensive line that might be the best in college football, Colorado rushed for 380 yards in its 62-36 shocker over Nebraska, then gained 223 the following week in a 39-37 victory over Texas in the Big 12 title game.

In both victories, Brown led the way. He rushed for 198 yards and a school record six touchdowns against Nebraska, then gained 182 yards and scored three touchdowns against Texas.

"Our rotation of running backs kept us all fresh," Brown said, "so we all keep doing what we do and we're not really hurt at the end of the season."

Johnson, the only senior among the four, said players had to put their egos aside, whether they liked the multi-back system or not.

"At the beginning of the season, it was tough because any running back wants to be the man, wants to be that guy that carries the ball 20 to 25 times," Johnson said. "But we realized all four of us were going to play, and who played the most depended on what type of game you were having.

"As the season has gone along, we've become, I guess you'd say committed, to knowing that the other three guys are going to play, and you know when you're number is called you have to go out and makes plays."

The Ducks have made no secret that they plan to load at least eight players up front to try to stop the run and force the Buffaloes to throw.

"You can see it on the film. They load up the box in the Pac-10," Colorado quarterback Bobby Pesavento said. "We're a great running football team, and they're going to do it to us. We're going to have to throw a little bit more."

In recent seasons, Oregon has had a strong running back, but that back has been worn down by injuries late in the season. Last year, Morris played in all 12 games but was slowed by, among other things, bruised ribs, a sore shoulder, a sprained toe and a lacerated hand. With Smith transferring from Tennessee, Morris no longer had to be the workhorse.

"The great thing for us this year is we would sit Maurice down and rest him and Onterrio would step in, or vice versa, and they were hungry, they were fresh, they were healthy," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "We had a great tailback on the field the entire time."

The mix of running and passing makes the Ducks especially difficult to defend, especially with Harrington - the Pac-10 offensive player of the year and a Heisman Trophy finalist - at the controls.

"It's very difficult," Buffaloes strong safety Michael Lewis said. "If you key on stopping the run, all of a sudden he's finding the tight end or the wide receiver down the field. Like we've been stressing, 'Just take your responsibility. If you've got the running backs do it. If you're on the receivers, do your job."'