Huskers' Crouch corrals Heisman in close vote

Sunday, December 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ When Eric Crouch wrapped his hands around the Heisman Trophy, he finally let loose with a smile.

`Yes!'' he said, slowly lifting the 25-pound bronze trophy. ``It's a little heavier than I thought.''

Crouch is used to carrying a heavy load. Three years after briefly leaving Nebraska when he lost the starting job, the quarterback won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night in one of the closest races in the history of the award.

``I just made history,'' Crouch said after winning college football's top individual prize by 62 points, 770-708, over Florida quarterback Rex Grossman. ``I never thought that in a million years I'd stick through it and be sitting here. I always believed in myself. I beat the odds. I'm proud of myself.''

Crouch capped a sensational career by keeping the Huskers (11-1) in the national title race all season, and not even a 62-36 loss to Colorado two weeks ago kept him from winning the Heisman.

A few hours later, Crouch and the No. 5 Cornhuskers got another present. Second-ranked Tennessee lost to LSU 31-20 in the SEC championship game, perhaps giving Nebraska a chance to go to the Rose Bowl for a matchup with No. 1 Miami and a shot at the national title.

Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey was third with 638 points and Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington fourth with 368 points. Crouch's margin of victory was the fourth closest in the Heisman's 67-year history.

``There was something deep down inside that said, `Eric, you want that trophy,'' Crouch said. ``But win or lose, I knew I would be the same person _ keep my character and keep composed.''

The Heisman ceremony was held at a midtown hotel, the first time it's been away from the Downtown Athletic Club. The club was damaged in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A gutty 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior from Omaha, Neb., Crouch ran for 1,115 yards and 18 touchdowns, passed for 1,510 yards and seven scores and even caught a 63-yard TD pass in a big win over Oklahoma. He's one of only three major college quarterbacks to run for 3,000 yards and pass for 4,000 yards in a career.

Crouch's winning point total was the smallest since Oregon State's Terry Baker won in 1962, but there may be an explanation.

Heisman officials mailed out 924 ballots, but only 585 were counted among the top 10 finishers, or just 63.3 percent. On average, there's about an 80 percent return rate, according to Heisman officials, who offered no explanation for the unusual amount of missing ballots.

Last year, 796 of 922 ballots were returned, an 86.3 percent rate, when Chris Weinke won over Josh Heupel.

When Crouch's name was called, his mother, Susan Sanchez, said she was '' overwhelmed with pride.''

``Did I really just hear his name? Did he really just win the Heisman Trophy? It was surreal. I feel like I'm in a dream,'' she said.

Grossman, who threw for 3,896 yards and 34 TDs in the Gators' 9-2 season, became the fourth sophomore to finish second in the Heisman. No sophomore has won it.

``I'm going to get another shot at it next year to prove that I'm a pretty good player,'' Grossman said. ``I'm not going to dwell on it like a loss or not playing in the SEC championship game.''

Crouch, the first true option quarterback to win the award, had 162 first-place votes, 98 second-place votes and 88 third-place votes, but won only one region _ the Southwest. Grossman had 137 first-place votes, 105 for second and 87 for third. He won the Mid-Atlantic and South.

Dorsey, who led Miami to an 11-0 record and a spot in the national title game, had 109 first-place votes, 122 for second and 67 for third. He won the Northeast.

Harrington, who threw for 2,414 yards and 23 TDs in leading the Ducks (10-1) to the Pac-10 title, had 54 first-place votes, 68 for second and 66 for third. He won the Far West.

The closest Heisman vote was Bo Jackson's 45-point victory over Chuck Long in 1985. Other than the first Heisman, when there were just 65 voters, the tightest three-man race was a 93-point margin in 1956, when Paul Hornung won over Johnny Majors and Tom McDonald.

Voters list three choices on their ballots, and players are awarded 3 points for first place, 2 for second and 1 for third.

Fresno State quarterback David Carr was fifth, followed by Indiana quarterback Antwaan Randle El, Oklahoma safety Roy Williams, Miami left tackle Bryant McKinnie, Syracuse defensive end Dwight Freeney and North Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers.

With the race wide open the past two weeks, voters were looking for one of the four finalists to produce a breakout game. It never happened. Nebraska and Florida lost, and Miami and Oregon won close games. In the end, Crouch's season won out, despite the loss to the Buffaloes.

``It's been a great ride,'' Crouch said.

In 1999, after Crouch started five games for the injured Bobby Newcombe, coach Frank Solich went back to Newcombe. Crouch was crushed. He got in his car, drove home and considered leaving the team.

But Solich drove to Omaha, too. The coach convinced him to return, and three games into the season Newcombe was benched for ineffectiveness and Crouch was calling signals again.

Great move, coach. Crouch is 35-6 as a starter and led the nation's top rushing offense with a knack for breaking big runs and hitting key passes. Crouch completed 55.6 percent of his passes, but critics saw more interceptions (10) than TD passes (7).

Of his trip to retrieve Crouch, Solich said: ``I felt he would just need some time to step back and think things over. He's very much a team player. He understood he was going to be an integral part of what we were going to do at Nebraska.''

Even though he had surgery twice on his right throwing shoulder, he never missed a snap due to injury in his final three seasons.

The 23-year-old Crouch, who has a 2-year old daughter with his fiance, Nikki, is the third Heisman winner from Nebraska, but the first quarterback. Running back Mike Rozier won in 1983 and wingback Johnny Rodgers in 1972.

``When you're a Heisman winner, they remember you for life,'' said Rodgers, who was in attendance with Rozier.

Unlike some of the top Nebraska quarterbacks before him, Crouch was the main man in crucial situations. Tommie Frazier, for example, had star I-backs Ahman Green and then Lawrence Phillips from 1992-95. And in the early '80s, Turner Gill had Roger Craig and then Rozier and All-American receiver Irving Fryar.

This year's Huskers ran for 314.7 yards per game, with I-back Dahrran Diedrick producing a 1,000-yard season. But when a game was on the line, Crouch came through.

``We literally put the ball in hands to win football games, and he responded,'' Solich said.

While Grossman put up awesome numbers, Dorsey's team didn't lose and Harrington led the Ducks to 10 wins, it was Crouch who convinced the voters he had the best Heisman-winning combination.

Even in the loss to Colorado, Crouch rallied the Huskers from a 32-point deficit within 12 points late in the third quarter, and wound up with a school-record 360 total yards.

``It's kind of been an up in the air type of thing all year long,'' Crouch said.