Curtis Enis first announced himself to the football world 10 years ago when he was a pudgy fifth-grader haunting the Mississinawa Valley High games in his hometown of Union City, Ohio. After one particularly discouraging loss Enis sidled up to the school's coach and said, by way of consolation, "Hang in there, man, help is on the way." Sure enough, when he got to Mississinawa Valley, Enis was thrice an all-state linebacker and rushed for more yards than any other schoolboy in Ohio history. That, man, was help.
Now a sophomore tailback at Penn State, Enis made a similarly prescient statement to his coach in the moments before Sunday's Kickoff Classic. "I'm ready," said Enis, after Joe Paterno informed him of the first start of his career.
Enis then racked up 241 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries in a bruising performance to lead the Nittany Lions to a 24-7 victory over Southern Cal. Enis's rushing yardage was a career high, a Kickoff Classic record and the most yards an opposing back had ever gained against the Trojans in their 104 years of playing football. But most significant was what Enis's performance did for the self-esteem of the Penn State offense. With only one starter back on the offensive line and little experience at the wide receiver position, it was assumed that senior quarterback Wally Richardson would have to carry the Lions through a transition year. Not so, not now. "We answered a lot of questions today about our offense, and we'll answer them all as the season progresses," Enis said after the game. As for his own performance? "I wasn't surprised," he said, apparently used to predicting his success. "My job is to just run the ball hard and do what I'm supposed to do."
Yes, well, he was one of the few players on the field who did what he was supposed to do. Both teams labored mightily, not surprising since the game took place more than a week before Labor Day. The sound blocking of Penn State's inexperienced line and the wrecking-ball rushes of the 6'1", 230-pound Enis, who averaged 8.9 yards a carry, were among the game's few constants.
The tone was set late in the second quarter of what was at the time a 3-0 game. Alone in the flat after bursting through a yawning hole, Enis absorbed a huge hit from USC safety Rashard Cook and then thundered into the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown. "I brought what I could bring," Cook said afterward, with a grim shake of the head. "Most anyone else, that hit would've dropped 'em."
"He's just very powerful and ran over us," Trojans coach John Robinson said. "We lost that football game because of Penn State's physical prowess in the running game."
Robinson's Enis envy is understandable. Southern Cal was held to 138 yards on 34 rushes by the spirited play of the Nittany Lions' experienced defense. It didn't help USC that its two best ballcarriers were suspended for the game. Junior tailback Delon Washington, who juked his way to 1,109 yards last season, was suspended five days before the Kickoff Classic for what was nebulously termed a "non-football related" rules violation. He is expected to be reinstated in time for Southern Cal's Sept. 7 game at Illinois. Senior tailback Shawn Walters, 14th on the Trojans' alltime rushing list, has been sitting in the corner with the dunce cap on since last September because it was discovered that he had taken money from an agent. He'll be eligible for Southern Cal's fourth game, one calendar year later.
With Tailback U stand-ins La Vale Woods and Rodney Sermons looking more like Tailback P-U, the Trojans needed a big game from senior quarterback Brad Otton, who last had been seen throwing for 391 yards and two TDs in USC's Rose Bowl victory over Northwestern. Otton was the only offensive first-stringer from that game to start against Penn State, and the Trojans were predictably out of sync. In the face of a heavy Nittany Lions rush, Otton misfired on 17 of 28 pass attempts, and USC's only score came with 29 seconds remaining, on a fumble recovery in the end zone. "Luckily, we played so bad as a team, there's enough blame to spread around so that no one unit gets all of it," said Otton, in a twisted bit of positive thinking.
Enis has a sunny outlook of his own, and that's what got him through the frustrations of his freshman year. Though he prefers playing tailback, Enis was used at linebacker during the 1995 preseason. "I never thought he was a linebacker," Paterno says now, "but we had plenty of running backs and not enough linebackers."
In the 1995 season opener against Texas Tech, Enis had two tackles. But with running backs Mike Archie and Stephen Pitts both banged up, Enis was put in at tailback in the second half of the following week's game against Temple, and he ran for 132 yards and three touchdowns, despite knowing only six rushing plays. He went for 145 yards the following week, against Rutgers, though he came off the bench because of Paterno's reluctance to start a freshman. With Archie and Pitts on the mend, Enis's role in the offense was reduced thereafter, and he had only 25 carries over the final four games. Still, his 683 yards made him the first true freshman to lead the Lions in rushing since D.J. Dozier in 1983, and he was named Big Ten freshman of the year. But, says Enis, "last year was a year I wasn't too happy about personally. But that's what makes people strive to be better than what they are."