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Louisiana tech quarterback Tim Rattay, the most productive passer in the college game this year, isn't what football people like to call a specimen. He stands an inch over six feet, and he weighs a little under 200 pounds. That's about average for a quarterback. But Rattay does have one amazing physical attribute: his sideburns.
Observed from any angle, they look as if someone has peeled rubber on either side of his face. Fat Elvis would have loved the look, as would any pool hustler or pizza delivery guy worth his pepperoni. "I don't know what Tim's deal is with those things," says his roommate, tight end David Newman. "They're big, though. Huge."
"Oh, he's a nerdy little guy," adds Tech defensive lineman Otis Pitts, "but don't be fooled by appearances. Tim can shock the world. To look at him you'd never guess he's the best quarterback in the country, would you?"
In Kentucky they're sitting up tall in their porch swings right about now. The best quarterback in the country? Hey, what about the Wildcats' Tim Couch? And at Central Florida you can bet they're damned near heat-stroked: Rattay better than Daunte Culpepper? "Our guy is up there with both of those, absolutely," says Louisiana Tech coach Gary Crowton, who's in his third season at the helm of the independent Bulldogs. "They might have more size than Tim does, but productivity is the key to being a great quarterback. Remember Doug Flutie? Remember Ty Detmer? That's the class Tim's in. He's just one of those rare magical players who come along every now and then."
They learned that in Lincoln, Neb., back in August, when Rattay passed for a staggering 590 yards in a 56-27 season-opening loss to the Cornhuskers. No quarterback had thrown for as many yards against Nebraska. Senior receiver Troy Edwards produced most of that yardage, making 21 catches en route to setting an NCAA record with 405 yards, and when he left the field, Cornhusker fans came to their feet and cheered.
"Did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that anyone would pass for 590 yards against Nebraska, in Lincoln?" says Mickey Slaughter, a former Tech quarterback and coach who played for the Denver Broncos in the 1960s. "Had Tim's receivers caught all the balls they should've caught, he'd have passed for 700 yards. It was absolutely overwhelming. Tim's passing right now at a 67% completion rate, and he's throwing more than 45 passes a game. I coached here for 12 years, and back then we couldn't complete 67% against anybody—not even against high weeds."
Last season, as a redshirt sophomore, Rattay led the nation in total offense, and his showing in Lincoln announced his intention to dominate the statistical wars in 1998. After nine games this year he is averaging 392.2 passing yards a game (chart, page 68) and has thrown 31 touchdowns, both tops in the nation. He has passed for 3,530 yards even though in three of the Bulldogs' four victories (against five losses) he played little in the second half, having put his team so far out of reach that Crowton pulled him to keep him safe and the score reasonable.
Until Rattay passed for a season-low 227 yards and had four interceptions last Saturday in a 32-17 defeat at Auburn, his least-productive game had been a 28-7 loss at Texas A&M, which had the good fortune of facing him in the throes of tropical storm Frances. In that game, despite the wild conditions, Rattay passed for 239 yards. "As far as college quarterbacks go, he doesn't look up to anyone," Terry Bowden said last week, a few days before resigning as Auburn coach.
Whether intentionally or not, Bowden identified Rattay as a "college" quarterback. Mainly because of their size and arm strength, Culpepper, a senior, and Couch, a junior, better resemble pros biding their time in a game of amateurs, as Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf did last year. Rattay's football destiny is less certain. Since the beginning of the year pro scouts have come tramping through Ruston in droves, but their mission has been to see Edwards, the All-America playmaker who leads the country in receptions a game and receiving yards a game and is likely to be a high pick in the draft. "I've talked to almost every last one of the scouts," Edwards says, "and they all ask me about Tim. 'How good is he really?' they all want to know. It seems they're trying to decide who's responsible for his big numbers—whether it's Tim, the offense we run or me. I tell them to come see us play and let that decide it. The most amazing thing about Tim is that teams we play know he's going to throw the ball and still can't stop us."
One NFL scout who has seen the Bulldogs play says that there's room for Rattay in the pros. "He has been in a sophisticated passing offense and has gotten great coaching," says the scout. "His arm seems like it's good enough to make an NFL team. He'll get his chance to play."