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THIS WEEK, WILLIS PLAYS ROLE OF HERO

When BYU scores 49 points in a game, it's usually because some high-profile, trophy-accumulating quarterback has passed for six or seven miles.

But Cougar quarterback John Walsh piled up a mere 228 yards and three touchdowns in Saturday's two-point victory over New Mexico, which means someone else had to provide additional heroics.The hero was Jamal Willis. The senior halfback with the loping stride and the broad shoulders romped for a career-high 204 yards on 29 carries (7 yards per carry), with two touchdowns. And his yards didn't come strictly on first-down, loose-defense situations. He seemed to be at his best when the Cougars desperately needed a big play.

"That was as fine a performance as we've had around here by a running back," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards. "And he got stronger as the game went on."

This is the same Jamal Willis, mind you, who followed up a superb, 1,004-yard sophomore season (making him only the third BYU back to gain 1,000-plus) with an injury-plagued, 404-yard effort last year.

That subpar performance led to offseason speculation that Willis would be replaced by one of BYU's promising young backs, but Willis had other plans.

BYU running backs coach Lance Reynolds said that in addition to getting healthy, Willis had to make some mental adjustments.

"We talked a lot in the offseason about being aggressive and playing hurt," Reynolds said. "Now he's more aggressive, he's running harder. He's not licking his wounds so much."

The difference is noticeable.

On BYU's first series, which resulted in a touchdown, he carried three times for 24 yards. He finished the period with 50 yards, but then something curious happened - in the second quarter, BYU ran 19 offensive plays, and Willis carried just twice, giving him 55 yards at halftime.

In the third quarter, Willis continued to rest. He carried three times for 16 yards and his first TD, on a two-yard plunge that put the Cougs ahead, 28-27.

The fourth quarter belonged to Jamal. Of BYU's 21 plays in the period, 15 were carries by Willis, one was a completed pass to Willis. He gained 133 yards on the ground, averaging 8.86 per carry and including a 39-yard TD romp that put the Cougs ahead, 49-33.

But Willis may have saved his best for last, and it saved BYU. After the Lobos had clawed to within two, BYU got the ball back with 2:46 left, desperately needing to chew up some clock. Facing third-and-seven at UNM's 43, Walsh dropped back to pass, spied a blitzing linebacker and dumped off to Willis in the right flat and he scampered eight yards for the first down.

Three plays later, BYU faced a fourth-and-two at UNM's 27-yard line, with 26 seconds left. A first down would end it. The call was obvious. Give it to Jamal. He not only got the two, he romped 14 yards, passing the 200-yard mark and finishing off the Lobos.

The day's effort gives Willis 2,414 career yards and puts him within what appears to be easy reach of the Cougar career rushing record of 2,710, set by Lakei Heimuli. Fortunately for BYU, though, Willis won't be satisfied with merely reaching that mark.

"I feel like I still have a lot to prove," he said.