The Other Star While Pitt's Larry Fitzgerald gets all the hype, it's Rod Rutherford who is throwing him the ball

November 17, 2003

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 redshirted 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 nosetackle 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."

COLOR PHOTO: JASON COHN/REUTERS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)