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Byars contained, not stopped by USC's thorny Rose Bowl defense

Did you ever go to the theater to hear someone like Ethel Merman rattle a few chandeliers and out popped Sandy Dennis without bothering to bring along a microphone? It was a lot like that at the 1985 Rose Bowl game when Ohio State's 6 ft. 2 in., 235-lb. All-America Keith Byars ran 50 yards the first time he carried the ball against Southern Cal and then had his offensive line take a 57-minute lunch break. The fact that the Trojans pulled a mild upset by edging the sixth-ranked Buckeyes 20-17 didn't help either.

But putting things in perspective, USC's containment of Byars was in the same category as the job San Francisco did in holding Eric Dickerson to only 38 yards in a pro game earlier this season. And Dickerson, if you remember, went on to break O.J. Simpson's single-season National Football League record of 2,003 yards.

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The Los Angeles Rams aren't going to trade Dickerson, and naturally Ohio State still feels it has the nation's top 1985 Heisman Trophy candidate in Byars, who will be a senior next fall. If I had to, I could name at least a couple of pro scouts who feel the same way, and who think Keith will do in the pros what John Riggins has done all these years for the New York Jets and the Washington Redskins.

Byars wasn't actually invisible against Southern Cal, you know. The country's leading rusher during the regular season (1,655 yards and 24 touchdowns) still had a 4.74 average per carry. Furthermore, the 59 yards he got after his first 50 came with USC tacklers hanging on both sides of him, drapped over his back, and wrapped around his ankles.

``When we got through the first half against Ohio State without having Byars score against us, I told our kids that the only way we probably could win was to continue that kind of coverage,'' said Trojans' coach Ted Tollner. ``I mean this kid never stops. He kept coming at us and coming at us and if we hadn't been ready every time, I think you would have seen a different ballgame.

``Anybody that big is going to break tackles against you if his offensive line can make a hole for him, and Keith has been breaking tackles all season. We contained Keith by assigning multiple-coverage to him, but I wouldn't say we really stopped him.''

Byars is not a flashy runner who giveth a would-be tackler the leg and then taketh it away. He dosen't make a lot of cuts, nor does he come back across the grain in an attempt to whipsaw the defense. But once he explodes through the line, it's a lot like a bowling ball getting loose in a china shop.

Said Washington State Coach Jim Walden, whose Cougars were run over by Ohio State 44-0:

``Byars is big and powerful and he can run away from you. Our players took a projected angle on him and he blew right by them. He had a passing gear as a runner that you don't see until he needs it. You think he's running full bore all the time and then you suddenly realize that he isn't.''

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Earlier this season, Byars destroyed what everybody said was a better-than-average Illinois defense by rushing for 274 yards and five touchdowns.

Inside the unpretentious Byars is not an aggressive personality trying to get free, but a quiet man who would just as soon stay the way he is.

Keith grew up in a sports-oriented family, in which he regularly ran sprints against two older brothers for bragging rights.

Monday through Friday, Byars's father is a foreclosure officer for the Montgomery County Treasury Department in Dayton. He is also an associate minister at the Apostolic Tabernacle Church. His mother works in the county clerk's office.

Keith's chief interest is social work, particularly that which involves children, and unlike many All-Americans who know the big bucks are waiting for them as soon as they turn pro, Byars is serious about getting his degree. He also seems to realize that there is life after football.

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