Heisman Trophy hopefuls struggled in big games


Friday, December 12th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


NEW YORK (AP) _ Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald knows the odds are stacked against him this week in the Heisman Trophy race.

No sophomore has ever won the award, only six winners didn't play quarterback or running back, and only one of the last 46 winners played for a four-loss team like Fitzgerald's Panthers.

``I still think I have chance,'' he said. ``They wouldn't have invited me if I didn't.''

Fitzgerald sure does. He is considered a co-favorite along with Oklahoma quarterback Jason White for college football's most prestigious award when it's handed out Saturday night.

Fitzgerald and White will be joined in New York by Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning and Michigan running back Chris Perry.

White appeared to be a lock to win the Heisman Trophy until he flamed out in the Big 12 title game. Luckily for White, he was not alone.

Three of the four Heisman finalists had their worst games of the season with conference championships on the line.

In a sport where late losses often count much more than early ones in the rankings, White, Fitzgerald and Manning hope the same doesn't hold true for individual awards.

White threw at least two touchdown passes every game until wilting against the heavy pressure from Kansas State's defense Saturday in the Big 12 championship game.

White went 27-for-50 for 298 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in the 35-7 loss, turning what looked like a Heisman runaway into a potentially close race.

``Some guys are sitting at home relaxing and not playing, and others are playing a championship game against one of the best teams you will play the entire year,'' Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. ``I believe most people will take that into consideration.''

White was the only finalist who played last weekend, after some of the 922 ballots had already been sent in.

Manning was at home after completing only 44 percent of his passes in a November showdown against LSU, costing Ole Miss a chance to play for the SEC championship. Fitzgerald was recovering from a three-catch effort against Miami in a loss that cost the Panthers a share of the Big East title.

Only Perry _ a long shot to win the award _ delivered when it counted most. He capped a spectacular season with a 204-yard, two-TD game in a 35-21 victory against Ohio State that sent Michigan to the Rose Bowl.

``If he wins the Heisman Trophy, he will certainly be very deserving,'' Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. ``I think he had a great year playing against great competition. And in our biggest games he had his biggest games.''

Still, this year's Heisman vote figures to be a two-man race between White and Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald is hoping to be the first pure receiver to win the award. Desmond Howard, Tim Brown and Johnny Rodgers also returned kicks when they won the Heisman.

But none of them put up numbers like Fitzgerald, who had 87 catches for 1,595 yards and 22 touchdowns. Fitzgerald has caught a touchdown pass in a record 18 consecutive games dating to last season.

``I do think quarterbacks and running backs have an advantage because they get the ball in their hands a lot more, especially the quarterbacks,'' Fitzgerald said. ``They probably handle it 300 times a season and I don't come close to that.''

Few could have envisioned White coming to New York for the Heisman ceremony when his career took a second major jolt on Sept. 7, 2002.

White crumpled to the turf with a torn ligament in his right knee, ending his season and putting his career in jeopardy. White considered quitting because he tore up the other knee a year earlier.

Instead of giving up, White never stopped working. He beat out three other quarterbacks to earn the No. 1 job before fall practice and then became the biggest key to Oklahoma's record-setting offense.

``My individual goal to start the season was just to stay healthy,'' White said. ``I wouldn't even have put myself in the top 100 for this award so this is a dream come true.''

White, The Associated Press Player of the Year, led the nation in passing efficiency, completing 64 percent of his passes for 3,744 yards, with 40 touchdowns and eight interceptions.