Game slows down for Cougs' leading rusher

WHEN <b>JEROME HARRISON</b> arrived from Pasadena City College, the hope was he'd follow in the footsteps of another WSU standout -- <b>Jonathan Smith</b> -- who came to Pullman by way of PCC. J Smooth was one of the Pac-10's top rushers a year ago. Turns out, Harrison took up right where his Pasadena predecessor left off.

In Jerome Harrison's sophomore year at PCC, he played on a team that went 0-10. Harrison was one of the few bright spots that season for the Lancers, averaging 6.1 yards a carry in '03 on the way to topping the 1000-yard rushing mark for the second straight year -- No small accomplishment to become the first running back at PCC in school history to rush for back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. Rushing for 1,059 hashes on a winless team isn't too shabby either.

Meanwhile, in 2003 for Washington State, Jonathan Smith would finish with 961 rushing yards after the Holiday Bowl win over Texas. Through Week 11 of his senior campaign, J Smooth had 723 yards headed into the Apple Cup.

With one less game this year, Harrison leads the Cougs in rushing with 750 yards heading into this weekend's clash with the Huskies.

"It's just been a great year ... I think I made the best decision by coming here."

ON PAGE 46 of this year's media guide, Harrison's name can be found on the depth chart as the No. 5 running back. True, that's mostly due to the media guide being published before fall camp and that Harrison didn't have an opportunity to go through spring ball.

Still, it illustrates just how far the Kalamazoo, Mich., native has come in four months.

Harrison also missed the first three days of fall camp waiting on the snail-like NCAA clearinghouse to clear his paperwork. Still, as the team broke fall camp, the running back had climbed a couple spots, solidly in at No. 3 behind Allen Thompson and starter Chris Bruhn.

Coach Bill Doba enjoys talking about who the starter is at RB about as much as he enjoys a quarterback controversy. Cognizant of that which doesn't show up on a stats sheet, team chemistry, Doba consistently stayed on message throughout the season: The Cougs had three solid running backs and they would utilize them all.

"The guys are all going to play," Doba said one week, in answer to the media's oft-asked question of who was the No. 1 RB. "It really doesn't matter who starts in my mind or in anybody else's mind," he said diplomatically.

The players understood. They understood that on a certain play in a certain situation, Bruhn might be the No. 1. On another, its AT. On another still, its Harrison.

But Doba has another phrase he uses at least as often; "The best players play." Although not listed as the starter until the Oregon State game, Harrison has received the lion's share of the running back carries since Week 4 at Arizona.

"The Arizona game was when I realized I can play at this level and be productive," Harrison told this week.

IF HARRISON had any early doubts about performing at the D-1 level, the coaching staff didn't. Running backs coach Kelly Skipper knew what Harrison was capable of on the gridiron.

"I really hadn't had a running back coach before I got here so at first, I didn't know how to take criticism. I would get down on myself when he (was offering constructive criticism) to make me better. I was just thinking I was pretty sorry but now I realize he was just helping me. He was just picking up my game, just trying to take my game to another level."

Once Harrison understood that, all the pieces began to come together.

"Instead of taking it the wrong way, I just started taking it as a positive, looking at the bigger picture and seeing what he was really telling me. I started watching film more, (and he helped me to) start paying attention to all of those things that really help your game."

Harrison's 247-yard rushing yards against UCLA a few weeks ago was the third best in program history. But like any great feat on the football field, it was a process to get there.

IN THE COUGS' first three games, Harrison carried the ball a combined 11 times, with 38 total rushing yards coming into Arizona. But something clicked around that time for the 5-9, 192-pound junior. The game started to slow down. He's been breaking ankles ever since..

"Oh its slowed down a whole bunch," said Harrison. "The first couple games I was thinking this level might be harder than I thought it was, that I might not be able to perform as well as I thought I would ... But as the season started to progress, things started to slow down -- and it just became football all over again."

Harrison has three 100-yard plus rushing games this season, just missing a fourth with 98-yards against OSU. Integral to that success, as you have no doubt heard from Harrison himself, is the elevated play of the offensive line. Harrison has taken pains to credit the steakeaters up front this season -- After being named Pac-10 offensive player of the week for his performance against the Bruins, the running back said the award should instead go to five other guys.

"I give my offensive line all of the credit," Harrison said at the time. "Calvin Armstrong, Bobby Byrd, Nick Mihlhauser, Norvell Holmes, and Sam Lightbody should be the Pac-10 Player of the Week, in my opinion. They did a great job."

ALSO DOING A GREAT JOB, the wide receivers. The WR unit rarely receives enough ink for their contribution to a successful rushing performance. Plug in the UCLA tape. The camera captures Cougar receivers on a bevy of long Harrison runs, keeping on their man and finishing their blocks as the running back streaks on past.

"Oh man, they don't get credit but I try and credit them. But nobody wants to write about it. Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus and Chris Jordan and Trandon Harvey. I mean, when I've had long runs -- and they're (sometimes) draw plays -- so they're blocking for the LONGEST time.

"And when I run past them they're STILL blocking."

"And coach Levenseller....he really emphasizes that during practice so it shows up in the game. If they get on their man, nine times out of ten, its going to be one on one between me and somebody else. And I think my teammates will take those odds any day."

AFTER THIS SEASON draws to a close with the conclusion of the Apple Cup, Harrison already has designs on the offseason. Namely, the weight room. He plans on putting on about "ten, maybe twelve pounds" of muscle.

But that's next year. This year still has some unfinished business to attend to in the form of Washington. Cougar fans wouldn't mind seeing Harrison break off a few more highlight reel runs on Saturday. Maybe even a few perfect plays. What would Harrison consider a perfect play?

"A perfect play? To go untouched," Harrison laughed.

An outgoing player who is just as likely to give an offensive lineman a bear hug during practice as to give them a little punch on the arm and then run away laughing, Harrison is upbeat about the future at Washington State. And about being a Coug.

"I'm just glad I can be a part of this team."

For both this week's Apple Cup and in looking ahead to his senior campaign in 2005, so is the Cougar Nation.

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