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The OSU flash

Wiley, averaging 9.3 yards a carry, to test PSU

Monday, September 28, 1998

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Michael Wiley made his football debut at age 8, as a quarterback. He had only two problems. He refused to throw the ball, and he refused to hand it off.

On every play in the first half of his first youth football game, Wiley kept the ball and ran with it. At halftime, the coaches pulled him aside and said, "Would you rather play running back?" Wiley nodded, and for the second half, he switched positions with the tailback.

He hasn't looked back since.

Wiley, now a junior tailback for No. 1 Ohio State, has evolved into one of college football's best rushers and given the Buckeyes a more balanced offensive attack than anyone expected. In each of Ohio State's first three games, Wiley has rushed for a career-high total, culminating with 209 yards against Missouri two weekends ago. It was the eighth time a Buckeyes back broke the 200-yard barrier.

Against West Virginia in the season opener, Wiley gained 140 yards, nearly double the total of the Mountaineers' Amos Zereoue, who had been getting some Heisman Trophy buzz. The next week, against Toledo, he rushed for 151 yards.

"I was hoping to average 100 yards per game," Wiley said. "So this is pretty good for me."

Pretty good? Wiley is averaging 9.3 yards per carry, second-best in Division I. He has tried to give credit to the offensive line - which he says has improved drastically since last season - and to the rest of Ohio State's offensive stars, who have taken the pressure off him.

It has fallen to coaches - his own and his opponents' - to praise Wiley.

"Michael is a young man who has been waiting to explode," Ohio State Coach John Cooper said after the Missouri game. "The first couple years here, he had guys in front of him. But now, Michael has come into his own. He is an exciting player - explosive, quick and decisive. He makes decisions, and usually the right decisions, and sticks with them."

"Wiley is a flash, a streak," Missouri Coach Larry Smith said. "He's a seam runner. He gets the seam, and he blows right through it."

Wiley has always shown such flashes. He scored three times in the season opener of his freshman year, and last year as a sophomore, he returned a kickoff 100 yards. He backed up Pepe Pearson at tailback as a sophomore, averaging 5.6 yards per carry, best on the team.

But he wasn't consistent. Wiley scored six touchdowns, but he also fumbled five times.

After the season, Wiley changed his attitude. Knowing that he would be the starter, he pushed himself harder than ever before in the off-season. He lifted more weight. Watched more film. Made sure he didn't just cruise on his runs, finishing in his target time, but ran hard enough that most of the time he ran faster than he was supposed to.

"And the coaches, they pushed me harder," he said. "They knew that I was going to have to step up for us to have a good season."

When Wiley was lifting, sometimes the strength coaches "forgot" to count a few of his sets, and he ended up doing extra repetitions. When Wiley ran, they pointed out everyone who was running ahead of him, and they goaded Wiley until he started winning the so-called races.

The increased endurance has helped. "Last year, if I had to run three plays in a row, I was dead tired," he said. "This year, I could run 10 times in a drive and still not be that tired."

Wiley made his name as a running back at Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley, Calif., gaining more than 3,000 yards in his career and being rated as the country's second-best tailback prospect. At Ohio State, the coaches tried him at running back, defensive back and wide receiver. They told him he would have to redshirt unless he played wide receiver and Wiley said he would be thrilled to catch passes. He made his Buckeyes' debut as a wide receiver.

"You know how it is when you're a freshman," Wiley said. "You just want to play."

Injuries enabled Wiley to move to tailback sooner than he expected, midway through the season. Finally comfortable, he was able to concentrate on the other aspects of life in Columbus, Ohio - like the weather. This California boy had a tough time adjusting to snow and 30-below wind-chill factors.

"My freshman year, I used to call a cab after class because it was so cold," Wiley said. "It was only a three-minute ride, but it would have been a 15-minute walk."

Wiley has adapted as well off the field as on it. He manages to walk home from classes now, and he is only 58 yards away from equaling last season's total yardage. He expects a tougher task Saturday against the Nittany Lions.

"It's definitely a big game," he said. "But we're definitely ready for anything."

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