It’s the oldest adage in sports: “Big players make big plays in big games.” And the Heisman Trophy voters each year apply it to their decision-making. Desmond Howard, in 1991, and Charles Woodson, in 1997, both sealed Heisman campaigns by returning punts to seal Michigan victories over the rival Ohio State Buckeyes. Right arm extended, left knee tucked up, Howard even struck the Heisman pose. Woodson claimed he would have, had he not been mobbed too quickly by his teammates.
In Division I-A, winning the Heisman, except in the rare, extraordinary season, comes down to who comes to play in the “big game.” For better or worse, if you put up the numbers against your rival or save your team’s national title hopes, you put yourself in position to go to the Downtown Athletic club and hoist the Heisman Trophy.
In the Ivy League, no awards are conferred. In the case of our Bulldogs, winning the HYP crown or beating Harvard are the only rewards for months of hard work. Nevertheless, attaining these goals often relies on the big plays of one big player.
In this year’s Heisman race, the same applies. Against Fresno State two weekends ago, Reggie Bush compiled 513 all-purpose yards (a new USC and Pac-10 record), including 294 rushing yards on 23 carries, and made his case for being “the most outstanding college football player in the United States.” His long strides and thunderous changes of direction catapulted him to paydirt twice. But what had voters clamoring was the fact that Bush had hoisted the Trojans up on his back (a la Aeneas leaving the burning Troy) and carried them to victory, maintaining a perfect season, USC’s 33-game winning streak, and, most importantly, hopes of a trip to Pasadena.
Bush’s most significant competition rests in the hands, or on the arm, of Vince Young. On Oct. 27, Young brought his team back from a 19-point hole, scoring once on an ankle-breaking move that opened up an 80-yard touchdown scramble. He combined 267 yards on the ground with 239 through the air and four touchdowns. Again, his performance ignited Heisman talk because it also rescued the Longhorns’ undefeated campaign and Rose Bowl aspirations. Young can only hope that his Pontiac Game Changing Performance will overshadow his poor showing this past weekend against in-state rival Texas A&M. Young looked out of sync, completing only 13 passes for 162 yards and throwing an interception as his Longhorns limped past the Aggies. The Texas quarterback could be seen multiple times sulking on the sideline, his face buried in his hands.
Texas coach Mack Brown commented on his quarterback’s performance against Oklahoma State: “Talk about Heisman Trophy winners. That’s a highlight reel for a Heisman Trophy right there.” And Brown, out of all the burnt orange faithful, was most relieved by Young’s showing and his team’s comeback. Before this year, many critics had questioned Brown’s job security because the coach had never been able to lift his team past archrival Oklahoma, losing five straight times in the contest. But with a dominating win in the Red River Shoot-Out this year, Brown shed the proverbial monkey from his back — threw it on the ground and beat it to death, in fact. And, with a win in the Big 12 Championship Game, Texas will advance to the Rose Bowl, and Brown will have his shot at a national championship.
Heisman Trophies and titles aside, two weekends ago with alumni watching around the Northeast on WGN, the Bulldogs lost for a Texas-esque fifth straight time to rival Harvard in The Game. No monkeys were shed, no stand-out performances saved the Elis. Rather, conservative play-calling and unfortunate and untimely turnovers aided the Crimson’s comeback from a 21-3 deficit and overtime victory. In fact, the 2005 campaign also saw the Bulldogs fall to Penn for a fifth consecutive season.
I can’t pretend to know the answer to Yale’s problem. But with the Bulldogs’ dramatic victory over the HYP front-running Tigers at Princeton, I have to wonder if the team’s talent isn’t great enough to beat the Cantabs. The 2004 squad was led by the most prolific passer, rusher and receiver in the rich Yale history. This year’s gridiron captain led the Ivy League in passing. What gives?
Overshadowed nationally by the unnecessarily large volume of press regarding new tailgating regulations, The Game was an exciting affair that did not go Yale’s way. With each inch that the shadows gained toward their sideline, the vampire Crimson gained strength, vanquished the Bulldogs and opened up a veritable Pandora’s box of alumni questioning where the Yale program is headed. Perhaps prophetically, on that very Saturday Reece Davis commented on coaches across college football on an ESPN recap show: “If you don’t win on Rivalry Weekend, you don’t keep your job.”
Nicholas Thorne is a sophomore in Pierson College.