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COLLEGE FOOTBALL : The Heisman Trophy Is Still Up for Grabs


There is a vacancy where the Heisman Trophy front-runner ought to be. Ballots were mailed this week to voters, but with a handful of games remaining until the Dec. 2 ceremony at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York, there is no clear choice for the distinction as the best college football player in the country.

Rudy Riska, the executive director of the Heisman Committee, said he does not remember a race that has been so ill-defined so late in the season. Among the choices are a quarterback at a school on probation, Andre Ware of Houston, and a quarterback who is more accurately a running back, Tony Rice of Notre Dame. Major Harris of West Virginia, Anthony Thompson of Indiana, Emmitt Smith of Florida, Dee Dowis of Air Force, Raghib Ismail of Notre Dame and Darian Hagan of Colorado also qualify as candidates.

"I've been here 28 years and I don't remember anything that has been so wide open," Riska said. ". . . I guess the next couple of weeks will make it clearer. Unless it makes it more confused."

One reason for the lack of a favorite is that the best candidates, 1988 winner Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State and Miami quarterback Steve Walsh, opted for the NFL despite another year of college eligibility. It's the sort of year that could result in an argument, joining much-debated past recipients such as Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan (1971).

Each of the most frequently mentioned candidates has as many drawbacks as accomplishments, and some key late games could decide it. Notre Dame, for instance, travels to Penn State on Nov. 18 and to Miami on Nov. 25. Rice has been maligned for not having classic throwing ability or dominant statistics; he's the team's leading rusher, but with only 653 yards. He has six interceptions and only two touchdown passes, yet he has not lost a game in two years and is 25-2 as a starter. An impressive late performance could clinch it for him.

Ware is in an awkward position, because no player at a school on probation has ever won the trophy. But his statistics are so extravagant--263 of 417 for 3,413 yards and 36 touchdowns--he might overcome that stigma. Thompson, the Indiana tailback, stumbled the last couple of weeks, being outgained by Tony Boles of Michigan and Blake Ezor of Michigan State. But he has set the NCAA career touchdown record (59), previously held by Army's Glenn Davis and Pitt's Tony Dorsett.

The others also are debatable. Harris's 1,618 yards passing and 661 yards rushing are impressive, but he fumbled three times against Penn State last week in his chance to shine. Smith is the nation's leading rusher with 1,214 yards on 203 carries, but he has been victim of the maelstrom in the Gators' program, with Coach Galen Hall resigning after admitting to NCAA violations. And Dowis and Hagan have fought obscurity all season.

That makes it hard for Riska to know whom to invite to the ceremony. "If it was too clear-cut, no one would be interested, right?" Riska said.

Colorado Coach Bill McCartney has provoked controversy in Boulder by agreeing to speak at an anti-abortion rally last week. McCartney, a born-again Christian, has agreed to appear on behalf of Operation Rescue, an organization that stages protests and blockades at abortion clinics.

McCartney, who this fall acknowledged that the late quarterback Sal Aunese fathered a boy born out of wedlock to his daughter, Kristin, said the appearance is a matter of conscience. But he said he did not condone violence or breaking the law.

"The issue is such that I can't stand by in good conscience and not speak," McCartney said. "I didn't volunteer, they came and asked me to speak, and in good conscience I feel a responsibility to speak. My position on it is that I support Operation Rescue, however I don't support anybody in the organization or in the country who uses violence, or who doesn't have love at the throne of their position on this."

No. 1 Notre Dame was in the unenviable position of hosting 2-6 Southern Methodist Saturday. SMU is in its first season of play since its program was canceled for two years by the NCAA. The Mustangs have 74 freshmen on the 92-player roster, 17 of them starters. The Irish must find a tactful way to get through the game without being accused of running up the score or patronizing the Mustangs.

SMU has been outscored 354-133 in eight games, including a 63-12 defeat by Texas A&M last week and a 95-21 drubbing by Houston three weeks ago. Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz said winning the game is his primary objective, but he acknowledged how to coach his team without running up the score and how to lay off without telling his team to lay down are touchy issues.

"I want to win," Holtz said before the game. "I know that sounds crazy."

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