The Other Star
While Pitt's Larry Fitzgerald gets all the hype, it's Rod Rutherford who is throwing him the ball
As Pittsburgh quarterback Rod Rutherford sprinted off the turf following the Panthers' 31-28 upset of No. 5 Virginia Tech at Heinz Field last Saturday night, he was jumped from behind by coach Walt Harris, who gleefully rode piggyback for a few yards. "You know who this is?" Harris kept screaming into the ear of the 6'3", 225-pound senior. Said Rutherford later, "I had no idea, but I knew it definitely couldn't have been a player."
The scene was appropriate considering that Rutherford had carried Pitt—now in sole possession of first place in the Big East with a 4-0 record, 7-2 overall—on his back all evening, completing 24 of 31 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns. Although sensational sophomore receiver Larry Fitzgerald had eight catches for 108 yards and a touchdown, he was blanketed by double coverage most of the night. Rutherford, who has become adept at making the reads required by Harris's complex West Coast offense, responded by completing passes to six other receivers. "Rod's very accurate," says Harris. "A lot of people say his success is just Larry catching the ball, but Rod is putting it in places where only Larry can catch it."
Such complete performances are common for Rutherford now, but it wasn't long ago that his future was uncertain. He joined the Panthers in 1999 after a prolific career at Pittsburgh's Perry Traditional Academy. He red-shirted his first season, then lined up at both quarterback and receiver the following year. In 2001, as the backup to starter David Priestley, he struggled to master the offense, completing 32.2% of his passes and throwing four interceptions. After a dismal spring practice in 2002, Harris sat Rutherford down for a two-hour meeting. "I think Rod didn't respect how much you had to work at playing quarterback," says Harris. "He was also very reluctant to run. He wanted to prove to everybody he could be a drop-back passer, but I was trying to get him to get the ball in the end zone any way he could."
Two things happened that summer that helped Rutherford become a star. Fitzgerald arrived, instantly improving the entire offense. But more important, Rutherford "decided he was going to be a different kind of player," says Harris. Last season Rutherford was poised in the pocket, made good decisions and led Pitt to a 9-4 record, the Panthers' best mark in 20 years, by throwing for 2,783 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushing for six scores.
Rutherford got off to a rough start this year when he was charged with assault and criminal mischief in September following an incident outside a Pittsburgh nightclub. The charges, which Rutherford denies, are still pending, but he hasn't let them affect his play for the 16th-ranked Panthers. He has completed 61.5% of his passes in throwing for 2,661 yards and 27 touchdowns. "Every time Rod has the ball now, you expect something good to happen," says senior nose-tackle Vince Crochunis.
At no time was that more evident than on Pitt's final drive on Saturday. Down 28-24 with 4:10 remaining, Rutherford took the Panthers 70 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Rutherford was superb on the drive, completing three of four passes and gaining 12 yards on a nifty scramble. "He grew up during this game," said Harris. "It was a great, great night for Rod Rutherford."
Clemson Shocks Florida State
Son Finally Beats Father
One Bowden was trying to save his job, and another was trying to keep his national-tide chances alive. But the most stressed-out member of the Bowden family last Saturday was probably Ann, who was sitting in the stands at Clemson's Memorial Stadium. "I'm just happy for my mom [that it's over]," Tigers coach Tommy Bowden said after his team beat his father's Florida State team for the first time in five tries, 26-10. "These Bowden-versus-Bowden games are always tough on her."
Although her loyalties might be divided, even Ann would have to agree that Tommy needed the victory more than her husband. After Clemson's 45-17 loss to Wake Forest on Nov. 1, speculation had intensified that Tommy, whose contract runs through 2007, would be fired unless the Tigers finished strong. The school administration had done nothing to quiet those whispers.