The Wolfpack's receivers were also skeptical of Rivers. "At first we thought, This is just another freshman with some hype, and there's no way he's going to start," Robinson says. "Then we caught his throws and changed our minds."
Also, any doubts about Rivers's toughness were erased during a scrimmage in spring practice, when he threw 22 passes after breaking the index finger on his throwing hand. Surgery on the finger forced Rivers to sit out the spring game, but Amato had chosen his starting quarterback. "In my wildest dreams I never thought he'd be so good this quickly," Amato says. "He's 18 going on 28."
After passing for 300 yards in a game only once at Athens High and never throwing more than 24 times in a single outing, Rivers is averaging 42 attempts and 320 yards per game. He ranks third in the nation in total offense and his 13 touchdown passes have already matched the ACC rookie record. "Being so young has given me more motivation," says Rivers, who has been intercepted only four times. "I don't ever want to lose a game and hear people say, 'He's only 18, what do you expect?' "
The strength of the 6'5", 221-pound Rivers is another asset. Before he hit Robinson streaking across the middle for the game-tying touchdown against Georgia Tech, Rivers first had to break free from the bear hug of 287-pound tackle Bryan Corhen. "That play tore my guts out because we had him sacked," Yellow Jackets defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "We threw a bunch of blitzes at Rivers, and you expect a freshman to get rattled, but he stayed courageous in the pocket [even while being sacked seven times and intercepted twice]."
Rivers has kindled an excitement for football in Raleigh rarely seen since the overachieving 1967 Wolfpack and its celebrated White Shoes defense, led by a linebacker named Chuck Amato, climbed as high as No. 3 in the polls. Despite having a roster with only seven senior lettermen, Amato is the first Wolfpack coach to debut 4-0 since 1917, and nobody is more shocked by that accomplishment than he is. "If you told me this summer that we'd be either 4-0 or 0-4, I'd have bet the ranch on 0-4," he says.
Amato credits much of Rivers's precocity to his being a coach's son, but the Rivers family influence hasn't stopped there. Last summer Steve and Joan moved, with their two younger children, Stephen, 7, and Anna, 2, to Raleigh after Steve accepted the coaching job at Wakefield High. Philip, who lives in a dorm, tries to come home one night a week, and the Riverses eat dinner in front of the television, often dissecting a tape of N.C. State's most recent heroics. Philip occasionally even finds himself drawn back to one of his father's practices. Steve says that he and Joan decided to make the move because they hated the idea of not supporting their son in person and because Philip still wants to hear his father's postgame comments firsthand.
An hour after the Georgia Tech game father and son were standing inside the N.C. State field house, gazing over the end zone where the winning touchdown had been scored and chatting about how three great finishes add up to one great start.