McGahee bouncing back

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:24 AM ET

Like millions watching on TV, Buffalo Bills guard Chris Villarrial saw the knee-exploding hit and winced.

Willis McGahee, star running back for the Miami Hurricanes, had his ligaments shredded by an Ohio State defender in a gruesome hit during the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.

Villarrial's first thought -- one shared by many -- was that he would never see McGahee in football pads again.

"I saw the hit, I was sitting at home watching that game," Villarrial said yesterday. "To bounce back from something like that is pretty unbelievable.

"The guy is a warrior, there's no doubt about it."

It may be too late to breathe serious playoff hope into the Bills (3-5) this year, but the emergence of McGahee has added an element of excitement to the struggling team.

In his first three NFL starts, all Bills wins, McGahee has rushed for 111, 102 and 132 yards. Success on the ground has helped open up the passing attack and suddenly the Buffalo offence doesn't look so helpless.

"I've got my swagger back," McGahee said yesterday here in Orchard Park as his team prepares for Sunday's prime-time meeting on the road against the New England Patriots.

"I just have to go out and do the same thing we've been doing. We've been moving the ball and opening up some passing lanes. If we keep doing that, we can't be stopped."

The Patriots (7-1), will have something to say about that, especially in front of a loud home crowd where they have won 15 games in a row dating back to Dec. 2002.

Still, New England coach Bill Belichick has watched the tape of McGahee and sees what scouts did in a college career that pegged him as a can't-miss pro.

The Patriots may be favoured by eight points, but with a vulnerable run defence, the coach of the Super Bowl champs isn't expecting a cakewalk in Foxboro.

"I think Willis looks good, he looks like he did in college," Belichick said yesterday on a conference call with the Buffalo-area media. "He's fast, he's got power.

"There are a lot of plays (when) the ball is snapped, you think it's going to be a yard, maybe two yards and he ends up with five and six."

That was the book on McGahee when he was a star in Miami, leading the Hurricanes to the national championship game. But when his left knee was blown out and required reconstructive surgery, he went from a surefire top-five pick to a risky draft-day proposition.

Though they already had a solid running back in Travis Henry and pressing needs elsewhere, the Bills bit, selecting McGahee 23rd overall in the 2003 draft.

A move that some criticized as a frivolous gamble, is starting to look like a heist.

The Buffalo coaching staff took its time with McGahee, not letting him so much as touch the ball in game action last season. But after Henry struggled early this year and was banged up, McGahee got the call for the Oct. 17 game against the Miami Dolphins.

His 111 rushing yards in in that first career start were the most for a Bills back in his NFL debut and McGahee has been a potent mix of power and explosive speed since.

MAKING THEM PAY

"The impression I had was he was more of a finesse back," Villarrial said. "But I'll tell you what, he's laying the boom right now. He's making guys pay for trying to tackle him."

He's also making Buffalo quarterback Drew Bledsoe pay less. Because the running game is suddenly dangerous, Bledsoe has more time and is in less danger himself.

"Willis can get the tough yards for you," Bledsoe said. "He can really push the pile. He gets those tough yards."

Tough yards have led to tough wins something that, after an 0-4 start, has made much better viewing for Villarrial, Bledsoe and the rest of the Bills.


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