Wednesday, September 8, 1999 - The Michigan Daily - 23A
' ,Climbing up Hill in Lions' life after Barry
ear the Spartans? Eastern coach Rick Rasnick doesn't.
agles don't fear
State despite history
PSILANTI (AP) - It doesn't
r Eastern Michigan coach Rick
tasnick a bit that his Eagles are 32-
oint underdogs in their season opener
laturday at Michigan State.
"I've been there before" Rasnick
aid Tuesday. "I could care less about
hose types of things. That's what
dichigan State should be; I'm sur-
rised it's not higher. I think it's rela-
ively low going into this contest"
History is certainly against the
= s. They are 0-8 against the Big
en m the 1990s and just 3-23 in non-
ague games over the same period.
.asnick is 0-3 against the Big Ten in his
our previous seasons at Eastern
dichigan, including a 47-0 drubbing
hree years ago from Michigan State.
The Spartans also have the experi-
ne of last week's 27-20 win over
)regon while this is the first game of
he season for the Eagles.
t Rasnick expects to take a much
nore experienced and competitive
eam into Spartan Stadium this time.
"We're at least five times better than
ve were at that time, at a minimum,"
asnick said. "We had a lot of freshmen
r new players in the program then.
)efensively we're a minimum five
"How everything works out I don't
now, but we're a better football team
'e most experienced Eagle is quar-
rback Walt Church. He was a true
eshman making his third collegiate
art when Eastern Michigan played the
Spartans in 1996, and, under constant
pressure, was I 1-for-28 passing for 103
yards with two interceptions.
Now a fourth-year junior, he's on
pace to top many of the school records
set by former Eastern Michigan quar-
terback Charlie Batch.
"Charlie might have a little quicker
release;' said Rasnick, who coached
both. "But both have very strong arts
and both are very accurate and very
Church's favorite target is wide
receiver Jermaine Sheffield, a 6-5
senior who last year had five catches
for 1I yards and a touchdown in a 59-
20 loss at Michigan and just missed
1,000 receiving yards for the season.
"He's starting to understand the day-
in, day-out work ethic of being a top-
notch receiver," Rasnick said. "He cer-
tainly has ability, and at 6-5 he really
creates some issues for the defense"
A top preseason priority for the
Eagles has been trying to improve a
running game that averaged less than
90 yards a game last year. If Eastern
Michigan can't run Saturday, Church
will be under heavy pressure all day.
"We have to make sure we still have
some balance to what we do," Rasnick
said. "No matter what the situation,
we're not going to allow Walt to go
back there and just throw it, throw it,
throw it. We're going to keep changing
up; we just have to.
"For us to be competitive and for
everything we do, we have to have
some semblance of balance"
Greg Hill catches on fast. That doesn't mean
Detroit Lions' fans will love him any the more for it,
but it can't hurt.
After having Barry Sanders to call their own, it's
doubtful any running back will ever be revered in
Detroit again. Hill, who was picked up in a trade just
before the end of the NFL exhibition season, seems to
"I'm not the next Barry Sanders" Hill said. "In
fact, I won't even be the main G. Hill in this town. I
believe that honor would go to that Grant Hill guy,
plays some hoops for the Pistons"
Smart. Does his homework.
Still, it's not likely to help the Lions much. The
club went 5-11 last season with the most exciting run-
ning back in football in the lineup. That wasn't much
fun, and Sanders retired despite needing only 1,458
yards to break Walter Payton's NFL career rushing
record of 16,726 yards.
There is absolutely no reason to believe they'll do
any better with Hill and backup Ron Rivers trying to
pick up the slack left by Sanders' exit.
Even eoach Bobby Ross admits that much. But the
coach prefers to put a little spin on the woeful situa-
tiont that could cost him his job.
"There's no way you're going to be able to replace
somebody of Barry Sanders' talents and the unique
things he can do on the field," Ross said. "But, we
have the capability of having a more reliable ground
game than what people may think."
Even with Sanders in the backfield, opponents
would bring anywhere from seven to nine defenders
up near the line of scrimmage last season.
The theory was that with rookie Charlie Batch
playing quarterback, there wasn't much danger of
getting burned through the air.
They would take Sanders out of the game, and dare
Batch to beat them. Obviously, he couldn't do it often.
So, only if Batch can play beyond his age and experi-
ence this season do the Lions have much chance of
"I feel as if we are moving forward," said Batch,
who had a 57.1 per cent completion average last sea-
son. "We just need to stop beating ourselves with
penalties and stuff"
There was no sign of improvement in that area dur-
ing the exhibition season, however.
The Lions went 1-3 through the preseason, wrap-
ping it up with a 17-6 loss to the St. Louis Rams in
which Detroit drew nine penalties for 74 yards.
"We didn't do what we are capable of doing in
training camp, and that's not a good thing," said
Herman Moore, one of the league's best receivers.
"But I'm still very optimistic, because I know how
good we can be once we get going"
Whatever it takes, Ross has be unable to push the
right buttons. He was so angry, he asked the NFL if
he could fine players who commit dumb penalties.
His request was denied, so he makes them run extra
But he clearly is frustrated by the situation.
"To me, people have to be competitive," Ross said.
"You've got to have a fire for this game. You've got to
have that and I don't care whether it's in checkers or
tiddlywinks or whatever the case."
The Detroit Lions might not be all smiles this season, since their legendary running back Barry Sanders retired
shortly before training camp began. But when have they ever had an easy season?
On the plus side, Batch has four good receivers to
throw to in Moore, Johnnie Morton, Germane
Crowell and Brian Stablein. Tight end David Sloan
also can catch a pass.
But not even the legendary Bobby Layne - still
the benchmark for Detroit quarterbacks - could
throw from the seat of his pants. And that's going to
be a challenge for Batch, especially since the offen-
sive line is riddled with injuries.
Wisconsin rookie Aaron Gibson, who was expect-
ed to play one tackle, is out for the season with a
shoulder injury and center Mike Compton will miss a
few more weeks with a knee injury.
Ray Roberts will start at left tackle and Jeff
Hartings at right guard. The rest of the line will be a
The defense is solid across the front with Robert
Porcher, James Jones, Luther Elliss and Travis
Kirschke - in place of Tracy Scroggins who is
recovering from knee surgery. The linebacking corps
is not with Southern California rookie Chris
Claiborne, Stephen Boyd and Allen Aldridge.
But the Lions' secondary, already suspect, has been
further depleted by injuries. Kevin Abrams will start
the season on the injured list, Terry Fair - who led
the NFL in kickoff returns last season - is playing
on a gimpy knee, and Bryant Westbrook is wearing a
soft cast to protect a broken bone in his hand that
required surgery. Only safety Mark Carrier is healthy.
Placekicker Jason Hanson and punter John Jett
both are solid.
"Every year since I've been here, we've talked
about how important it is to get off to a good start;"
said Elliss, who missed most of camp with a broken
cheek bone, the result of a summer surfing accident.
"But we've never actually been able to do it.
"We have the type of defense that can be really
good, but only if every player does his job. If anyone
isn't filling their role, it doesn't work."
That's a sermon Ross has been trying to preach, but
it seems to go unheeded.
"I'm tired of it, Ross said. "I'm going to get peo-
ple who are fire-eaters, that want to play and get after
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