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November 1, 2006
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Marshawn Lynch is scoring game-winning touchdowns, is among the nation's leading rushers, is helping California to a seven-game winning streak and is getting mentioned in Heisman Trophy discussions.
What could he do if he had two good ankles?
"Well, hey, I don't know right now," said Lynch, who despite playing with two sprained ankles scored a touchdown to defeat Washington in overtime last week. "I've been playing every game with a hurt ankle and I've been doing pretty good.
"I'm not running as hard as I would like to, but I can't complain. We won. Week in and week out I've been out there for my team. I've had a lot of pain in my ankles, but I played through it. I've got some great blocks up front and that made it easier for me."
It would have been easy to write off Lynch as a Heisman Trophy contender and Cal as a national championship contender after Tennessee routed the Golden Bears 35-18 in the football season opener.
But both have come back strong.
California, ranked ninth to start the season, has climbed back into the top 10 and leads the Pac-10 standings.
Lynch, who was held to 74 yards rushing by Tennessee, has rushed for 907 yards and ranks 11th nationally with an average of 113 yards per game.
That includes the 112 yards he gained against Portland State when he carried just six times. It also includes the 50 yards he got on just seven carries when he sprained an ankle against Oregon.
He followed with 152 yards against Washington State and then 150 against Washington, in a performance which turns players into legends.
He scored on a 17-yard run with 1:52 remaining to stake the Bears to a 24-17 lead. But Washington scored on a deflected pass on the last play of regulation to send the game into overtime.
Then Lynch, on sore ankles, ran 22 yards for a game-winning touchdown and celebrated by jumping into a golf cart used to carry injured players. He proceeded to do doughnuts on the Memorial Stadium artificial turf to the delight of the Cal student section.
"To be able to suck it up and play injured like he did when we're in that situation, I complimented him after the game of what a performance it was," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "The first thing out of his mouth was, 'I'm just trying to do my best to help the team win.'"
The talk in Berkeley is that Lynch doesn't talk ? not about himself, anyway.
He doesn't complain when backup running back Justin Forsett, who has rushed for 348 yards, comes in to take away valuable carries that could enhance Lynch's Heisman candidacy.
"That's absolutely fine with me. I have no problem sharing the ball with Justin," Lynch said. "He's another great running back, and we also have three great receivers who have to see the ball. I feel it gives the defense a lot of worries when they don't have just one person to focus on."
And despite the fact that Cal averages 36.1 points per game to rank ninth nationally, Lynch said defense is the reason the Bears keep winning.
"Our defense is the heart of the team," he said. "That's what keeps us going."
The Bears have not allowed more than 24 points in a game since that opening loss to Tennessee, and have held four opponents to 17 or fewer points.
As a result, the Bears (7-1, 5-0) - with four games remaining - may be closing in on their first Pac-10 championship since they shared one with UCLA in 1975.
They face UCLA this week and then Arizona before a showdown with Southern Cal on Nov. 18. Cal closes the season against rival Stanford, which is winless this season.
But no matter how many games the Bears win or which championships they may claim, perhaps their greatest accomplishment is they've gained favor with the Berkeley students - who at times in the past have been at best apathetic regarding the football team.
Just three years ago Cal's average attendance for six home games was 38,305. This season Cal has averaged 60,966 fans in five home games and still has games with UCLA and Stanford at Memorial Stadium.
"Our fans have showed us a great amount of respect," Lynch said. "Even after a close win (over Washington) that they thought would be a pushover. Our fans have really gotten into the football thing here. They've showed us a lot of support."
In another year, Lynch might be getting enough support to make a serious run at winning the Heisman Trophy. He's averaging almost 7 yards a carry and he's caught 19 passes out of the backfield. The fact that he's playing through injuries is the kind of sidebar that voters love.
However, Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith has all but wrapped up the Heisman.
But with a strong finish Lynch, a junior, will be among the top contenders ? if not the favorite ? to win it next year.
Not that he cares.
"It's really not a big deal for me," Lynch said. "I'd rather win the national championship than get a Heisman Trophy. That would show the class of our team and what our team can do. Games are not won with one player."
But a player like Lynch can sure help to win a lot of games.
What number did Illinois legend Red Grange wear? (Answer at the end of the column.)
? Any question about undefeated West Virginia deserving to play for the national championship game is centered around its strength of schedule, but the Mountaineers will have plenty of chances to render that point moot the rest of the season. West Virginia's first seven opponents are a combined 23-36 (38.9 percentage). However, the five teams remaining on the schedule ? Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, South Florida and Rutgers ? are a combined 31-9 (77.5 percent). Furthermore, while West Virginia leads the nation in rushing, five of its previous opponents rank 92nd or lower in run defense and a sixth ? Eastern Washington ? plays in Division I-AA. The remaining five opponents are no worse than 61st against the run and three ? Louisville, Rutgers and Cincinnati ? rank in the top 17 nationally against the run. Also, three of West Virginia's remaining games are on the road.
? West Virginia's Pat White is closing in on the all-time rushing record for Big East quarterbacks. White, who has 1,571 career rushing yards, trails former West Virginia quarterback Rasheed Marshall by 469 yards. Marshall rushed for 2,040 yards from 2001 to 2004. White is averaging 88 yards per game. At his current pace, he would finish the regular season about 20 yards short of Marshall's record. Of course, that would just prolong the inevitable - White is just a sophomore.
? Pittsburgh redshirt freshman defensive tackle Mick Williams had surgery on his left shoulder last week and will miss the remainder of the season.
? Florida quarterback Chris Leak disputed reports that he suffered a concussion in last week's victory over Georgia and affirmed that he would play this week against Vanderbilt. Leak completed just six of 12 passes for 46 yards against Georgia in the second half when the Gators failed to score an offensive touchdown. With a win over Vanderbilt and an LSU victory over Tennessee, Florida (7-1, 5-1) will clinch the Southeastern Conference East Division.
? Florida defensive end Ray McDonald is lamenting the one that got away. No, not a ballcarrier, the ball. McDonald picked up a fumble in last week's victory over Georgia and ran 9 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. It was the first touchdown he'd scored at any level of competition. McDonald said he wished he'd hid the ball under his shoulder pads.
? Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge has a sore ankle that has kept him from practicing, but he's vowed to play on Saturday against LSU. Ainge hurt his ankle on a quarterback draw on the final scoring drive of last week's 31-24 victory over South Carolina.
? After a strong showing in last week's loss to Maryland, Florida State's Xavier Lee will be the starting quarterback this weekend against Virginia. Getting his first start a week ago, Lee completed 22 of 36 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Lee started last week because usual starter Drew Weatherford could not play because of an ankle injury.
? Missouri running back Tony Temple, who leads the Tigers with 662 yards rushing, was demoted to second team after suffering a slightly dislocated shoulder and fumbling in last week's loss to Oklahoma. Earl Goldsmith will be the starter against Nebraska on Saturday.
? Iowa quarterback Drew Tate is expected to be back in the starting lineup against Northwestern this week. Tate did not play in last week's victory over Northern Illinois after undergoing surgery on his left hand.
? Nebraska sophomore tight end Justin Tomerlin has been dismissed from the team for violations of policies and regulations. Tomerlin played in three games this season but did not record a reception.
? Although suffering a mild concussion against Arizona State last week, Washington quarterback Carl Bonnell will likely start this week against Oregon. Bonnell replaced starter Isaiah Stanback, who earlier sustained a season-ending foot injury. The Huskies anticipate running back Kenny James will be back after sitting out the game against Arizona State with a sprained ankle, but they won't have free safety Jason Wells - who hurt a knee last week.
? Oklahoma will play its 100th game under Bob Stoops this weekend when it travels to College Station to face Texas A&M. The Sooners are 81-18 under Stoops and have won three Big 12 championships and a national championship.
? Texas coach Mack Brown suggested that redshirt freshman quarterback Colt McCoy should be among the invitees for the Heisman Trophy ceremonies in New York next month. McCoy has 24 touchdown passes and four interceptions and has led the Longhorns to an 8-1 record. McCoy needs three touchdown passes to break Texas' single-season record.
? The Longhorns' 6-foot-3, 270-pound Henry Melton, who came to Texas as a running back, is also working at defensive end. Melton has a team-leading six rushing touchdowns this season, but made his debut as a defensive end in last week's victory over Texas Tech.
? Wisconsin freshman running back P.J. Hill is questionable for this weekend's game against Penn State after taking two hard hits to his neck in last week's victory over Illinois. Hill had only 12 carries for 50 yards in that game and twice had to leave the game after hard hits. He did not return after the second one.
? Standout sophomore receiver Mario Manningham, who has been forced to miss Michigan's last three games after surgery to repair torn meniscus in his right knee, might play in Saturday's game against Ball State. It is the Wolverines' final game at Michigan Stadium this season. Manningham had 24 catches for 527 yards and nine touchdowns in the first six games, but Michigan hasn't had a deep threat since his injury.
? Indiana players are trying not to get ahead of themselves and think about going to a bowl game even though they just need one more victory. That's a good idea. The Hoosiers (5-4) are hoping to end a bowl drought that extends back to 1994. "This is all new to us," senior center Justin Frye said. "The only thing that we know now is how hard we've worked to get here." Indiana has games remaining against Minnesota, Michigan and Purdue.
? Brigham Young quarterback John Beck was named the Mountain West Conference offensive player of the week for the fourth time this season. If he gets the honor once more he'll tie a school record set by punter/kicker Matt Payne, who was honored for special teams play five times in 2004.
Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.