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PRO FOOTBALL : Saints' No. 2 Runner Leaves the Rams Reaching and Grasping

November 09, 1987|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

A quiz:

1. The latest Ram loss can be blamed on this New Orleans Saint running back:

a.) Pro Bowl selection Rueben Mayes, the fourth most productive rusher in the league last season.

b.) Dalton Hilliard, his backup.

2. Five would-be Ram tacklers failed to bring down this running back during a 38-yard touchdown reception Sunday:

a.) Pro Bowl selection Rueben Mayes, about the darn nicest guy you could ever meet.

b.) Dalton Hilliard, his backup.

3. And this Saint running back led his team Sunday in pass receiving, completion percentage, rushing and was second in touchdown passes:

a.) Pro Bowl selection Rueben Mayes, a swell guy who uses his off-season to complete a college degree.

b.) Dalton Hilliard, his backup.

And now for the all-important hint: It wasn't Mayes.

That would leave Hilliard, who has spent a college and brief pro career darting in and out of the shadows of assorted legends.

At New Orleans, he often finds himself stationed behind Mayes, once more among the conference's leading rushers.

At LSU, where Hilliard played four seasons, he was just good enough to be hidden by Southeastern Conference celebrities, Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson.

So it's no surprise that the Rams, who left Anaheim Stadium Sunday with a 31-14 defeat, were groping for explanations. For instance, how exactly did Hilliard, the understudy, rush for 92 yards, catch 84 yards' worth of passes and throw one pass and complete it for a touchdown? And just how did Hilliard, at 5-foot-8, sort of the Tyrone Bogues of the National Football League, slip past and through so many Ram tacklers?

The Ram response: Uh . . .

"Sure he made us miss some of the times, but it was embarrassing the way we tackled," Ram Coach John Robinson said.

And this, from linebacker Mel Owens: "I think he's a good back, but anybody in the NFL is tough if he's got the ball all alone in the open field."

Someone might want to remind the Rams of that 38-yarder, the one Hilliard left at least five defenders with nothing more than grass stains. And on a fourth-period Saint scoring drive, Hilliard accounted for 8 carries and 50 yards.

The Saints have seen this sort of thing before. Hilliard was the starter until Mayes asserted himself five games into the 1986 season. Hilliard finished with 425 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns while Mayes finished with Rookie-of-Year honors.

And though Hilliard is listed as the No. 2 halfback, he makes frequent appearances on likely passing downs. On Sunday, the Saints took it a step further by using Hilliard on down after down.

"That's him, that's him at his best," said receiver Eric Martin, a former LSU teammate. "I'm not surprised and I'm sure he's not surprised about what he did out there today.

"He's a powerful guy, but (the Rams) don't know that. I'm sure after today, some of the Rams (will). They underestimate this guy breaking all those tackles. He broke a lot of tackles. It was amazing."

Hilliard wasn't much for postgame analysis. He did say that he thought this was his "best day ever in the NFL." Then again, how many days can you have in a season and a half?

Asked to choose between his touchdown run and his touchdown pass, Hilliard picked the pass. All he did was fake a run, pull up, and gently loft a pass over Ram defenders Nolan Cromwell and Jerry Gray and into the hands of tight end John Tice.

"It was the perfect pass," said Tice, who should know. "I had two guys right on my back."

As was their custom Sunday, the Rams weren't in the mood to dish out compliments. Hilliard's option pass? "I thought it should have been an interception," Gray said.

About the worst thing Hilliard did Sunday was fumble shortly before the end of the first half. The mistake later resulted in a Ram touchdown.

But that about did it for Hilliard boo-boos. Actually, the Saints could hardly remember the mistake, so pleased were they with the win.

"Dalton's worked really hard the last couple of weeks and it just showed on the field," Mayes said. "I was just sitting there watching him."

Admiring might be a better word on a day that Hilliard could do little wrong.

"You always knew he could play," quarterback Bobby Hebert said. "You see him in practice everyday and you know he can play."

As for budding running back controversies, forget it. Hilliard will have none of it.

"Rueben is our starter and probably will continue to be our starter," Hilliard said. "He had a great game."

Thank you, said Mayes, who scored once and had 81 rushing yards.

"Dalton can do some things that I can't do and I can do some things that Dalton can't do," Mayes said. "But if Dalton can play like that, it keeps the defense on its heels."

Heels? Try back.

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