ST. LOUIS -- Sometimes you don't need to go to Lincoln, Ann Arbor, Tuscaloosa, Tallahassee, Norman, South Bend or Coral Gables to see a great college football game.
In the unlikely setting of Busch Stadium, Howard University and Alcorn State delivered a classic. After each team had returned a kickoff for a touchdown, after Steve McNair had put forth another performance worthy of a Heisman Trophy candidate, after Jay Walker had come hobbling off Howard's bench, after a fullback from Coolidge High had rushed for a career-high 161 yards, Howard found itself too exhausted to celebrate a dizzying 38-36 victory that was low on defense but high on mad dashes and breathless offense.
Once again, Howard managed to escape an outrageous performance by McNair -- "Air" McNair -- the best quarterback you'll never see on national television. It's too bad, really, because once you see McNair, you begin to wonder whether anybody playing college football is as good as he is. And that includes Charlie Ward, Marshall Faulk and anybody else you want to name.Anyway, Howard survived McNair again. Last year, he turned a 38-6 deficit into a 48-42 fright job that Howard won. Saturday there was no dramatic rally, but McNair ran for three touchdowns, threw for another, and passed for 299 yards on an assortment of bombs, screens, lobs and bullets. But as good as McNair was, he was no more important to his team than Jay Walker was to Howard.
The numbers don't compare. McNair completed 23 of 32 passes and bore a striking resemblance to a young John Elway. Walker, Howard's senior quarterback, completed only eight of 17 for 107 yards. But there's no way in the world Howard wins without him. There's no way Howard wins if Walker stays on the sideline with a badly sprained right ankle that forced him onto a pair of crutches earlier in the week and out of practice until Thursday.
Alfonzo Hamilton is going to be a worthy starter someday, probably next season. But he's a redshirt freshman at the moment. Jay Walker, the senior from Southern California, has the talent, the savvy and the arrogance it takes to make a team believe it can match McNair score for score.
This is the game Walker lived for. Last season, against these same Braves, he'd been forced to the sideline late in the game with a wrist injury. Last week, a Winston-Salem State player fell on Walker's right ankle at the end of a seven-yard scramble. All he'd done to that point was complete eight of 11 for 162 yards and carry six times for 33 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown. All Walker had heard during the preseason was McNair, McNair, McNair. Walker might have been the second-best quarterback in black college football, but who knew? If you'd heard of anybody in the SWAC or MEAC, it was McNair.This Gateway Classic under the arch would be his chance, but here he was hobbling through two days of light practice, watching as a redshirt freshman started the game.
As you might expect, Alcorn got off to a 7-0 lead. McNair threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Marque Harper after Hamilton had coughed up a sack/fumble at his 40. But Hamilton recovered and threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to "The Flea," Gary Harrell. From then on, the game resembled an Olympic track meet. Alcorn's Garee White ran 95 yards on the ensuing kickoff. The Flea took a punt return 42 yards. More importantly, the Howard offense started that series with a gimpy Walker under center.
On first and 15, with all his receivers covered, Walker had the guts to scramble up the middle for nine yards. On third and six from the 7, Alcorn blitzed like mad; Walker held his ground, waited for Phil Simpson to clear and hit him with a jump pass, off the back foot, for a touchdown that put Howard ahead 14-13.
From there, McNair set up a field goal for Alcorn. Howard's James Cunningham returned the kickoff 79 yards for a touchdown. McNair scored on a one-yard plunge. Walker hit The Flea for a 34-yard touchdown. Howard's Rupert Grant, who busted his way for 161 yards, rumbled for one-yard touchdown. McNair broke four tackles en route to a six-yard touchdown run. Back and forth they went like this until Alcorn had taken a 36-35 lead with 5:30 to play on McNair's power run.
But Howard's coaches were smart and resourceful enough to know that a quick strike, easy as it might be to get, would only leave McNair with too much time for an easy march. So Howard kept the ball on the ground, in Grant's hands. He had 54 yards on the final drive. Walker threw only two passes that drive, but completed both, including the five-yard pass to The Flea that got walk-on freshman Jason Decuir close enough for a relatively comfortable 19-yard field goal that became the game-winner. All McNair was left with was 53 seconds, which is to say, not enough time.
Whatever pain Walker suffered -- and it was obvious several times when he limped into the huddle -- it was worth it. For the second straight year McNair had superior stats, McNair had wowed the NFL scouts in attendance and the media members (this one included) who make the appraisals, but Walker had won.
"Next year, I want to see NO Steve McNair articles in The Washington Post because I beat him twice," a jubilant Walker said afterward.
His was the sweet revenge borne of hours in the training room twice a day, before class in the morning and after practice at night, for six days to get his ankle in playing shape. With conference foe Florida A&M next on the schedule, it would have been understandable if Coach Steve Wilson decided not to risk his whole season for this game. But Walker was determined not only to play, but to win.
But he'll probably have to live with victories and relative anonymity. Steve McNair is a marked man who lives up to the billing almost every Saturday. Once, with two Howard defenders chasing, McNair ran left, jumped and faded out of bounds, while firing back to the right to hit a receiver in stride. Another time, he again ran left with two defenders in pursuit, squared his shoulders while in the air, and wondrously hit his brother, Tim, in the end zone for a touchdown. The play was nullified by motion along the offensive line. Sometimes, however, neither flags nor losses nullify brilliance.