For Now, Buckeye Fans Have New Favorite

By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The late Woody Hayes may exemplify Ohio State football elsewhere, but Archie Griffin -- the hometown kid who never really left -- is considered Mr. Buckeye by the team's fans.

Now a rival has appeared. Freshman tailback Maurice Clarett's fast start has put many Ohio State rushing records -- and Griffin's status as the fans' abiding favorite -- in jeopardy.

It has reached the point where the loudest cheer echoing around Ohio Stadium is "MO-rees! MO-rees!"

Not only did Griffin win two Heisman Trophies -- something no one else has ever done -- but he is the university's associate athletic director and remains a driving force in the community.

Griffin grew up in Columbus and was a better-than-average player and an average student who ended up excelling in both areas. In his second game in an Ohio State uniform, the quick but short tailback rushed for 239 yards against North Carolina and the legend was born. Even a mediocre professional career couldn't taint his sterling name in Columbus.

Griffin was Hayes' favorite player. The old man loved him, it seemed, as if he were his own son, bragging about how hard he worked and proudly speaking of his qualities off the field and in the classroom.

"He's a better young man than he is a football player -- and he's the best football player I've ever seen," Hayes once said.

Other terrific Ohio State players have come and gone. None was ever embraced by Buckeye fans as Griffin always has been. Until, perhaps, now.

Clarett (pictured, above) came out of Warren with a big-time rep, labeled as Ohio's Mr. Football by The Associated Press and the national offensive player of the year by USA Today. So far, he's more than lived up to the hype.

"We're trying to find a name for him but haven't found anything yet," wide receiver Chris Vance said. "Maybe 'Terminator.'"

In his first game against Texas Tech, he rushed for 175 yards and scored three touchdowns. In his second game against Kent State, he managed 64 yards and lost a fumble. Spurred by that temporary embarrassment, he gained 230 yards and scored two touchdowns -- almost 200 yards and both scores coming in the second half -- on Saturday against Washington State.

"We bounced right off of him," Washington State coach Mike Price said.

His position coach, Tim Spencer, compares Clarett's work ethic to that of Eddie George, who won the Heisman in 1995. Head coach Jim Tressel says Clarett is more along the lines of prototypical big back Keith Byars for his ability to move a pile of tacklers as well as run around them.

After the opener, even Michigan coach Lloyd Carr weighed in on Clarett.

"They have a back down there that looks to be very special," he said.

Clarett speaks in selfless terms, crediting his blockers and speaking only of the next week's opponent. It is clear, however, that he is extremely confident. Privately, he has told folks back home that he wants to win a Heisman as a sophomore and then turn pro.

Amazingly, a Washington State beat writer asked Clarett when he thought he would jump to the NFL -- after playing two college games.

For now, however, he is saying and doing all the right things.

"Some people work all week looking forward to coming to the Buckeye game. That's all they have to look forward to all week," Clarett said Saturday after the sixth-biggest rushing day in Ohio State's history of running the ball. "They're sitting in Section ZZ C99 ... All they can see is the top of our helmets. But they came to see a good game, just like the people sitting in the good seats. So I try to work hard for every fan in the stadium."

Clarett is currently on pace to not only obliterate the school's freshman rushing record for a season -- he's already almost half way to Robert Smith's record -- but also George's overall school mark of 1,927 yards. Keeping in mind the Buckeyes are playing the longest season in OSU history with 13 scheduled games, he would become the first Buckeye back to ever surpass 2,000 yards in a year.

The love affair will continue as long as Clarett keeps collecting yardage and saying the right things -- and the Buckeyes continue to win.

There are many hurdles in the road and a lot of distractions for a young Buck who is already a rock star in his new hometown. For now, however, he sits atop the popularity poll taken most Saturdays on the banks of the Olentangy River.

"We take it one game at a time," Clarett said.

So far, that's been working out just fine.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)