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Wednesday, September 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sooners' Heisman candidate on the prowl

Seattle Times staff reporter

Pac-10 football, the talking heads will tell you, is soft as Kleenex. The Big 12, conversely, is sand paper.

It's a conventional wisdom that has held for years now.

And one touted again this week by Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson when asked to compare the conferences as his team prepares to host Washington on Saturday.

"We're physical," Peterson said. "That's not to take anything away from the Pac-10, that's not to say that they're not physical or anything. But in the Big 12, it's more dominant. We're more physical and run the ball with a smash-mouth style of play on both sides of the ball."

Interesting to note, then, that three of the worst rushing performances of Peterson's storied career have come against Pac-10 teams, a trend the Huskies obviously hope continues.

Of the five times he has been held below 100 yards in games in which he was healthy, three have come against Pac-10 teams: USC in the 2005 Orange Bowl (25 carries, 85 yards), a regular-season game against UCLA last season (23-58) and the Holiday Bowl last season against Oregon (23-84).

"That's probably more of a fluke than anything else," said UW coach Tyrone Willingham.

Probably, considering all that Peterson — a native of Palestine, Texas, who spurned the Longhorns to become a Sooner — has accomplished.

He was the Heisman Trophy runner-up as a true freshman in 2004 when he set a school record with 1,925 yards, a heady achievement considering Oklahoma has had three Heisman running backs.

And after battling an ankle injury that held him out of the Heisman race last season, he is a favorite again this year.

The 6-2, 215-pounder has rushed for 3,172 yards in 25 career games and topped 100 or more 17 times.

Still, while Peterson seems the embodiment of rough and tough Midwest football, supposedly finesse Pac-10 teams have shown they can slow him down just a bit.

UCLA, for instance, held Peterson to what is the lowest total of his career in a game in which he was healthy two weeks before Washington rushed for 213 yards against the same Bruins defense.

UCLA coach Karl Dorrell noted that Oklahoma was breaking in quarterback Rhett Bomar, elevated to the starting lineup the week before.

"The biggest thing we wanted to do was at least force the quarterback into more of a throwing game against us and spend most of our efforts on stopping the running game," Dorrell said.

Bomar, since kicked off the team, threw for 241 yards, but the Bruins led from the start in a 41-24 victory.

The USC and Oregon games were each bowl games in which those teams had weeks to prepare. And obviously, given USC's personnel in 2004, there may not be much the Huskies can learn from that one.

"We just made sure that we were real attentive to him and didn't get into a pass rush mode when he was back there," said USC coach Pete Carroll, whose team beat the Sooners 55-19. "We played our base defense against them was really all we did, and we didn't let him have any freebies."

Oregon has seen both the really good and the merely good of Peterson something which lends some credence to Willingham's "fluke" theory.

He rushed for 183 yards on 24 carries against the Ducks in a regular-season home game in 2004.

But in last year's Holiday Bowl, an apparently healthy Peterson was held to eight yards in the first half before he churned out 76 in the second as the Sooners rallied to win. Willingham said UW's goals are simple "see if we can keep him under his average [5.5 yards per carry for his career] and don't allow him to get any big plays."

The Huskies might be getting Peterson at a bad time, however. He rushed for 143 yards on 24 carries against Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday and also caught one pass from quarterback Paul Thompson that he turned into a 69-yard touchdown.

Yet an Associated Press story on Tuesday reported that OU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson told Peterson that "that ain't close to what you need to play" and that Peterson agreed.

Some have wondered if Peterson will get distracted by all the attention coming his way not only on the field, but off.

Recent stories have detailed his relationship with his father, Nelson, a one-time basketball player at Idaho State who spent nearly seven years in a Texas prison for money laundering but was recently released to a halfway house. Nelson Peterson is expected to be able to see his son play in person for the first time against Texas on Oct. 7.

Peterson admitted Monday that "I'm already pumped up for the Texas game, but I have to make sure I don't get too ahead of things."

The Pac-10, he knows, awaits.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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