Cowboys and Quarterbacks

Ex-altar boys built like beer trucks still go to Notre Dame. The future Nobel laureates are at Stanford, absorbing Plato. Those who crave ice cream and river rafting are bonding with Kid Rick up in Boulder--and calling home on the free telephones. Condominium-sized sprinters who live for the scent of alfalfa--and the occasional appearance in a police lineup--simply must play for Nebraska. Break a leg. Dr. Tom will fix it. Break a law. He'll fix that, too.

So where does that leave the li'l ol' U. of Wyoming, with its half-empty stadium, howling winter winds and a social life you could fit under a jackalope?

Well, pardner, that leaves Wyoming with the longest winning streak in the nation--eleven. And the number-one passing offense. And the highest-ranked punter. And the second-best receiver. All that leaves Wyoming 8-0 this season, number eighteen in the polls and...virtually nowhere in the eyes of college football's power elite.

It has always been thus. When they look at Wyoming, the powers see a big rectangular state with 900 people in it, a 135-mile-an-hour speed limit and a critical shortage of pate en croute at both restaurants. They see big scores and big numbers in the Western Athletic Conference, a touchdown-happy realm where playing defense is like trying to stop a cruise missile with a hairnet. So a program like Wyoming's sure doesn't attract much attention in the concrete canyons of Manhattan, where bluebloods in bow ties hand out the Heisman Trophy. Or at the Ramada Inn/Gainesville, or some such, where hardware salesmen in plaid blazers hand out the major bowl bids.

Go WYO! Yeah, sure. Go to hell, big-time football says. Who'd you beat? Idaho, that's who. And the flukes from Air Force. Meanwhile, what about those uniforms! Are you kidding out there with the brown and yellow? Looks like something the cattle left behind in the pasture. Better call Donna Karan for a remake.

While the Cowboys get no respect, the largely unknown hero of our story remains Wyoming head coach Joe Tiller. His very surname suggests that he'll get down in the dirt and dig to come up with a good recruit and that he can do something with the fertile minds of young men. Turns out he can do both. But what Joe Tiller does best is pass. As an assistant at Washington State, he recruited and developed Drew Bledsoe. At Purdue he had Jim Everett. Way back at Montana State, he even coached a quarterback everybody in WYO! would like to plink with the old thirty-ought-six. Dennis Erickson. The coach who walked out on the Pokes.

But let's move on. In Tiller's first five seasons at the helm in Laramie, the Cowboys never ranked worse than seventeeth nationally in passing yardage and scoring. They were eighth in 1991 and 1994 and thirteenth last season. Between 1990 and 1993 Wyoming wideout Ryan Yarborough set the all-time NCAA career mark for receiving with 4,357 yards. This season the Pokes' Marcus Harris needs just 428 more yards to break Yarborough's record. He's got three games left to do it, and unless the nation's leading quarterback, Josh Wallwork (362 yards of total offense per game, 24 touchdowns!), sprains a couple of fingers cutting up his chicken-fried steak, Harris will sail past the record with barely a thought.

The funny part is that Wyoming is promoting Marcus Harris as an authentic Heisman Trophy candidate.

The nerve. Guy who plays in a 35,000-seat stadium. In a little town just south of Murmansk. For Wyoming. Little matter that he's already caught 68 more passes this season for 1,062 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. Little matter that he's the number-one-ranked receiver according to Sports Illustrated and a shoo-in All-American on everybody's list. Down in Gainesville, where they pack in the fans like the Nuremberg rallies, Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel is leading the Heisman pack by a mile. Despite his huge numbers (he's about to become the only receiver in history to have three consecutive 1,400-yard seasons) and the nice, tuxedo-clad picture of him on the front of the Wyoming media guide, Marcus Harris has no more chance of taking home the Heisman than Pat Bowlen does of winning the next mayor's race.

But seldom is heard a discouraging word. Joe Tiller and Marcus Harris just want to win some more football games. On getting Harris his 428 yards and being done with it, the head coach had this to say last week: "We haven't considered it. Maybe we should. One of the great things about him is that he hasn't brought it up. He's a very unselfish guy. Last week [a 42-21 win over Fresno State], we audible-ized out of a couple of routes to Marcus because he was double-covered, because they loaded up on him. So we will throw to the inside receivers if we can get them open. We will not be blind to other receivers if guys running down the middle are open."

Still, Joe Tiller isn't blind. When he looks at the Associated Press and USA Today/CNN Coaches' polls, he sees teams like WAC rival Brigham Young (7-1), Penn State (6-2) and Kansas State (6-1) rated higher than his 8-0 Pokes, and he thinks about it. But he never talks about it. "We may have a stronger opinion here later in the season," he says. "But right now we're kind of numb in regard to that ranking business. We don't think about it and we don't talk about it, because there's not much we can do about it. But in a couple of weeks we may feel a little differently."

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