Five weeks ago, Syracuse tailback, Joe Morris, although only a junior, had every reason to believe he was a legitimate candidate for college football's most cherished award -- the Heisman Trophy.
After capping a brilliant sophomore season with a 155-yard rushing effort in leading the Orangemen to a 31-7 triumph over McNeese State in the Independence Bowl last year, Morris got off to a flying start this season.He amassed 492 yards and scored five times in leading Syracuse to victories in two of its three games.
Both he and his team were ranked among the nation's offensive leaders and everything pointed to a banner season for Syracuse. The school, which played all of its games on the road last year while its new domed stadium was being finished, inaugurated one of the East's finest facilities with a 36-24 victory over Miami (Ohiio). Morris had 152 yards and four touchdowns, one of them a 94-yard kickoff return.
But in the final quarter of a 42-21 rout of Northwestern the following week, Morris' and Syracuse's dreams took a turn for the worst. The 5-foot-8, 184-pound Morris bruised a shoulder and sat out the next three games. Morris said he lost every Heisman vote he might have garnered to such other talented backs as South Carolina's Amos Lawrence and Georgia's Herschel Walker.
I guess you can say the injury hurt what little Heisman chances I had," said Morris, who had been Sports Illustrated's and the Associated Press' offensive player of the week. "The team was playing well, I was playing well and everyone felt we were going to have a big year."
Without Morris, the Orangemen dropped two of their next three games.
"When Joe went down, our defense went with him," said Coach Frank Maloney. "We had one of the best offenses in the nation at that point, but the injuries came. Joe's an exceptional back and we definitely missed him."
"I couldn't do anything but stand on the sideline and watch," Morris said. "That's an empty feeling. When I finally got my shoulder together, it was like starting all over. I had to establish myself as a good runner all over again."
It didn't take long. In Morris' first game back, against Rutgers, he ran for 157 yards and scored once in his team's 17-9 win. In that game, Morris became the leading rusher in the school's history, surpassing such stars as Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka.
"I'm not one for personal achievements, but breaking that records tells me I'm in select company," said Morris, who now has 3,038 yards on 529 carries, including 16 career touchdowns. "But who's to say what any of those men would have down now. The game is different now and maybe if any of them were playing now they might be breaking records."
Morris, whose 4.3 speed has enabled him to rush 100 yards or better in 15 games, was stopped by Pittsburgh Saturday. The Panthers battered the Orangemen, 43-6, holding Morris to 16 yards on 12 carries.
"They said they were going to stop me and they did, cold," Morris said. "I think we might have been a bit intimidated by their personnel. I didn't get any running room at all. It's the worst game I've played since I've been here. Until I played Pitt, the hardest-hitting team I had faced was Navy. And we play them next."
Both Syracuse (4-4) and Navy (5-3), routed by Notre Dame, 33-0, last week, realize a loss Saturday will eliminate any hopes of a bowl bid.
"Not only do we want to beat Navy, we have to beat Navy," said Morris. "Winning the Heisman isn't the most important thing to me. I would prefer to win all of our games and finish the year healthy. A beautiful climax to this season would be getting a bowl bid. It isn't impossible. Navy is standing in our way."
Maloney agreed: "We're both in the same situation -- a lot of injuries -- and we were both beaten by power teams last week. We've beaten them three straight times and the games are always physical. Joe is 100 perrcent healthy again and I can say Navy will see him with the ball quite a bit."
"I wouldn't want to go through what we went through again in life," Maloney said. "That was something . . . It's sure nice to play at home again."
Morris, who had a school-record 252 yards rushing against Kansas last year, is just glad to be back on the field, any field.