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WUERFFEL & DUNN // Florida State's little big man carries the load and loves it

Warrick Dunn might be slight of stature, but his performance this season, especially in the biggest games, was so imposing, he was worthy of a statue.

"He's probably been as consistent as any player we've had at Florida State," coach Bobby Bowden said of his electrifying senior tailback.

"He always played well. I'd never seen a guy always play well. The times he didn't have good numbers are the times we didn't feature him. He's just been super."

But Dunn didn't win the Heisman Trophy.

After receiving little fanfare during the season, he finished a distant fifth behind Florida's record-setting quarterback, Danny Wuerffel.

Nor did Dunn carry off the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back. He wasn't even among the three finalists. Nor was he named the Offensive Player of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

All he did was carry FSU's offense.

That, despite defenses designed first and foremost to stop him and wear him down with punishing hits.

That, despite a neophyte quarterback, Thad Busby, and an inexperienced offensive line that struggled for consistency and shifted a greater burden onto Dunn and the defense.

"I thought we'd win easily by 50 points, but we weren't doing that," Dunn said. "I knew coming back (for his senior year) I'd be keyed upon and like a focal point. But I also knew we had the talent, the skill and the athletes on offense and defense to win football games.

"It's been fun for me. And with the obstacles we've had this year, it's just been a pleasure overcoming those obstacles."

Darting into a mass of humanity on each play, Dunn _ who admits he's generously listed at 5 feet 9, 185 pounds _ somehow would extricate himself and go.

And go.

He rushed for 1,180 yards, becoming the first Seminole to surpass 1,000 yards three times and shattering Greg Allen's career rushing record of 3,769. Dunn finished with 3,959 yards on 49 fewer carries. He also scored 14 touchdowns this season, including two receiving, to break Allen's career TD record of 46. Dunn has 49.

"There can't be a better man to block for in this world," offensive lineman Todd Fordham said. "All you have to do is stay on your man. He's going to make a lot of people miss, and you're going to meet him in the end zone a lot of times."

More impressive this season were his statistics when a game's stakes were raised:

+ He rushed for 163 yards _ including an 80-yard touchdown on which he zipped up the middle past blitzing linebackers and faked out a defensive back with a nifty cutback _ as FSU ended 12 years of futility against the Miami Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl.

+ He gained 131 yards on a season-high 26 carries and scored a touchdown as FSU beat its top ACC rival, Virginia, to avenge its stunning loss to the Cavaliers a year earlier.

+ A week after he was so battered and bruised against Wake Forest he could barely bend over to take off his cleats, Dunn racked up 204 all-purpose yards and scored three touchdowns against No. 25 Southern Mississippi.

"Warrick Dunn is just amazing," Bowden said after that game. "If you watch the guy play football, you have to wonder if there's a better player."

+ In the regular-season finale against then-No. 1 Florida, Dunn gained a career-high 185 yards. Just as important, the usually introverted Dunn spoke up in the huddle at a crucial point in the fourth quarter, pleading, even demanding, that the struggling offense move the ball.

It did for the first time since the opening quarter. Dunn caught a pass for 15 yards and ran three times for 27 yards to set up the clinching touchdown.

"Like a back like (Barry) Sanders from Detroit and Emmitt Smith ... he can frustrate a defensive coach," Bowden gushed. "They can play it perfect, and he can still break it."

Dunn sealed the 24-21 win that vaulted FSU to the top spot in the polls and a berth in the Sugar Bowl with a first-down run in the waning moments.

"Warrick was sensational," UF coach Steve Spurrier said. "He won the game for them, probably."

Dunn shrugs when asked about his big play in big games.

"I just enjoy tough situations; I've been in tough situations," he said.

His mother, Betty Dunn Smothers _ a Baton Rouge police officer and an off-duty security officer _ was shot and killed when he was 18. As the eldest of six children in a one-parent home, he had to take on the parental obligations.

"I just take things and go with them," Dunn said.

Usually, for a long distance.

"His legacy," Bowden said, "will be that he was the spearhead of four of the greatest years Florida State football has had, or any program in the country has ever had."