Bowl Notebook (Dec. 27)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Don Nehlen, ending 21 seasons as West Virginia's coach after the Mountaineers (6-5) play Mississippi (7-4) in the Music City Bowl on Thursday, leaves as Division I-A's fifth-most-successful active coach with 201 wins.
Nehlen, who is retiring, says he is most proud of never having two straight losing seasons, serving as president of the American Football Coaches Association and being named the school's first national coach of the year in 1988.
"When you see Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant, and all of a sudden, there's Don Nehlen, you go, 'excuse me?' It's kind of nice to throw your name in the hat with those kind of guys," he said.
PASADENA, Calif. - Purdue's Vinny Sutherland looks you straight in the eye and calls himself a wide receiver.
He is, by all accounts, the Boilermakers' top receiver and their most dangerous threat. But four years ago, Sutherland thought he was a running back.
"Every other school recruited me as a corner. But growing up, I just thought I was better with the ball in my hands, I guess," he said.
Purdue agreed and gambled on Sutherland, whose final college game will be against Washington in the Rose Bowl on Monday. The Boilermakers saw a potential playmaker. And Sutherland couldn't turn down the opportunity.
"I wasn't recruited by the Florida schools," said Sutherland, whose hometown is West Palm Beach. "I grew up watching Miami football and Big Ten football. But when they told me I could come up here and play right away, it really knocked my socks off."
Sutherland responded by catching at least 30 passes in each of his four seasons, including a career-best and team-high 69 for 926 yards and 11 touchdowns this year.
As a runner, Sutherland averages 7.7 yards on 50 career carries and has scored three touchdowns. As a punt returner, he is Purdue's career leader with 684 yards and has run back two for touchdowns.
EL PASO, Texas - Wisconsin wide receiver Chris Chambers' season began with hopes of a national title and the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top wide receiver.
Then he broke a foot in camp, got caught up in the shoe scandal that rocked the program and returned from his missed month with a ton of doubts that robbed him briefly of his playmaking ability.
Chambers salvaged his season - and that of the Badgers - with back-to-back 11-catch games that propelled Wisconsin to its seventh bowl game in eight seasons. The Badgers (8-4) face UCLA (6-5) in the Sun Bowl on Friday.
"I think all you have to do is take a look at the productivity of our offense once he came back," coach Barry Alvarez said. "Once he was full speed, we've been throwing the ball for over 200 yards every game. He's directly responsible for how our offense is functioning right now.
"We've been very balanced for the last five games, with over 200 yards throwing and, in the majority of those games, over 200 yards rushing. And that's kind of like where we want to be."
Chambers finished with a career-high 47 catches for 774 yards and four touchdowns, and needs nine catches for 138 yards Friday to break school career records. His per-game averages of six catches for 97 yards were career bests and top efforts of the Alvarez era.
COLUMBUS, Ohio - Miami of Ohio ran it and nearly upset Ohio State. Minnesota, Purdue and, to a degree, Michigan ran it and beat the Buckeyes.
Now comes South Carolina and coach Lou Holtz, who has embraced the hottest theory in offensive football, the spread.
Holtz has always run a traditional offense with emphasis on establishing the run. Faced with a winless team his first season with the Gamecocks, he switched to the uptempo, multiple-receiver set that puts a premium on the quarterback's ability to make rapid-fire decisions and get rid of the ball.
"That's the offense of the future in college football," Ohio State coach John Cooper said.
It must be the offense of the present, too, since so many teams have used it to put together strong seasons. South Carolina forged a 7-4 record and earned a berth opposite Ohio State in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day.
Cooper said he's surprised not that Holtz turned things around at South Carolina but that he did it with the spread.
"The one thing that's different about Lou this year is that he's always been known as an option man. We haven't seen South Carolina run the option this year," Cooper said. "He's changed his thinking. That's the mark of a good coach when he can keep up with the times."
Cooper said watching so much film on South Carolina has opened his eyes a bit to the spread.
"You'll see other teams - maybe even us - use more and more of the spread next year," he said. l
SAN DIEGO - It's finally official. Chris Simms will start at quarterback for No. 12 Texas against No. 8 Oregon in the Holiday Bowl.
Not that it's much of surprise, considering Simms' 383 yards passing and three touchdowns in a season-ending win over Texas A&M.
But until Wednesday, coach Mack Brown had been coy about picking Simms to start. Major Applewhite, Texas' career passing leader, was still recovering from a sprained knee and trying to get back into the lineup.
"Chris is going to start and if we're playing great, we'll continue that way," Brown said after Texas (9-2) finished its last full practice before Friday's game.
The announcement was no surprise to Simms.
"I think it would be real rare for me to practice with the first team all week and not start," he said.
PHOENIX - The Oregon State offense views the Fiesta Bowl as a contest between the Beavers' speed and Notre Dame's power. The Irish were quick to disagree.
"I think our defense is extremely fast. Maybe people think we aren't because the Notre Dame Stadium grass is so high," linebacker Anthony Denman said. "But every time we have played on a fast track we have shown how fast we are."
Part of the perception might be a remnant of last season, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. The Irish defense played miserably last season as the team went 5-7. In the last four games, all loses, the Irish gave up an average of 429 yards and 36.5 points a game.
"I did not like the way the defense played last year. I don't stand for that," Mattison said. "I couldn't handle that."
Which is why the Irish made some big changes defensively during the offseason. Mattison turned over some of his defensive coordinator duties to coach Bob Davie, a former defensive coordinator, so Mattison could concentrate on defensive line technique. Mattison said it was not hard to give up some of his duties.
Mattison said players have been willing to fill roles rather than try to be stars. The result has been a team that plays with more confidence and faster.
The Irish (9-2) committed to being a more swarming defense.
"The coaches told us, 'Even if you make a mistake, make it at 110 miles an hour,"' defensive tackle Lance Legree said.
The Irish switched to a more aggressive style, leaving defensive backs in man-on-man coverage more often. The result was 33 sacks, 15 more than last season. The Irish are giving up 354 yards a game, which isn't dominating. But they are giving up 20.5 points a game, which is 35th among Division I-A teams.
The players say the embarrassment of last season provided motivation.
"A 5-7 season opened a lot of eyes. Nobody wanted to come to Notre Dame and go 5-7," safety Tony Driver said.
The Irish, ranked No. 10, play in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 - their first major bowl in five years - and if they beat No. 5 Oregon State could have their first Top 10 finish since finishing No. 2 in 1993.