Nebraska's Crouch healthy and rested for Oklahoma

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ Just once, Nebraska linebacker Carlos Polk would like to get his hands on Cornhuskers' quarterback Eric Crouch.

``I always tease him that I want to hit him in practice _ just to test him,'' Polk said. ``But I know that's not going to happen. I might not catch him in the first place.''

Not many people do. The junior from Omaha, who carries No. 1 Nebraska's national title hopes, hasn't slowed down since he took over the starting job a year ago.

Crouch leads the nation's No. 2 scoring offense, which averages 46.3 points per game, with 11 rushing touchdowns and nine passing TDs. On Saturday, he will play opposite the quarterback who leads the top-scoring offense _ Josh Heupel of third-ranked Oklahoma.

The two are considered contenders for the Heisman Trophy and one could take a giant step ahead with a good performance in this high-profile game.

``That's one thing that I know I've blocked out of my mind already. It's not a battle between the quarterbacks. It's a battle between the teams,'' Crouch said.

The quarterbacks and the teams have decidedly different offensive philosophies. While the Sooners have shifted from their traditional running attack and now rely on Heupel's pinpoint passing, the Huskers have stayed with the option. And Crouch is running it as well as any Nebraska QB ever has.

``He's always had confidence but certainly things fit together for him much more easily, much smoother. That only comes from playing and having success playing,'' coach Frank Solich said. ``He's having, I think, just an outstanding year. I don't think that he could be playing better.''

The Huskers lead the nation in rushing at nearly 380 yards per game and are second in total offense with an average of 499.3.

Just seven games into the season, Crouch is close to the 16 touchdowns he ran for last year, when he became the starter after two games. He has 576 rushing yards on 96 carries and has completed 47 of 96 passes for 775 yards and nine touchdowns.

The numbers would be much higher, but Solich has rested Crouch for much of the last two games. Crouch played just a quarter last week in a 59-0 shutout of Baylor _ Nebraska led 38-0 at the time _ and sat out the fourth quarter the week before against Texas Tech.

``Eric's the kind of guy that will play through injuries. He actually practices through them, too. He tries not to let anything affect him,'' Solich said. ``That's a big plus to have a guy like that on your football team because it sets an example for others.''

For Crouch, coming out after just a quarter last week was difficult, getting only five carries for 46 yards and a touchdown. It was only the second time this season he hadn't either run or thrown for at least two TDs.

``I feel like it was the best thing to do for me to be healthy going into this next game,'' Crouch said. ``I think it's helped me out more than I ever thought it would. I feel like I'm moving around this week the best I have all week. If you look back on it, it's probably because of the rest I've had.''

Facing a healthy and rested Crouch has been on the mind of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.

``Everything revolves around him, so you've got to be able to change the way you come after him, change the way you're supporting against the plays that they're running,'' Stoops said. ``And when you get there, you've got to be able to tackle. You see a lot of times he's played against people when people are in position, but he makes 'em miss or runs through tackles and makes plays.''

Crouch plays down his statistics and the Heisman talk. He also doesn't seem to get wrapped up in the hype surrounding Saturday's game, even if Nebraska is No. 1 and Oklahoma No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series ratings, which will decide who plays for the national title.

Crouch is more concerned about becoming part of the Nebraska-Oklahoma history he remembers watching as a kid.

``I'm a big part of it now and I know that I've got to go out and have my best game,'' he said. ``Right now it's kind of hard for me to think of it as a rivalry because I haven't played them yet.''

Polk, one of 11 finalists for the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker, is glad he only goes against Crouch in practice, even if he's not allowed to hit him.

``He's tough. Some of the moves that he puts on in the game just leaves you saying 'Wow!''' Polk said. ``I don't envy the OU players at all.''

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