COLLEGE PARK -- During two of the first three weeks of the football season, the University of Maryland had problems stopping option quarterbacks. So when the Terps first found out that No. 17 Pittsburgh ran the one-back set, there was a sense of relief.
Until the Terps (1-2) watched game film of the Panthers (4-0).
"We had a tough time trying to cope with those elusive people like Marvin Graves [Syracuse quarterback] and Darren Studstill [West Virginia quarterback]," said Maryland inside linebacker Mike Jarmolowich. "We thought we could play better against a pure drop-back passer. But this Van Pelt guy can throw, and he has such a quick release. He's going to be hard to get to."
Alex Van Pelt, along with the Panthers defense, is the mai reason Pitt is unbeaten and nationally ranked. Forget all the talk about the Panthers' running game. It's strictly complementary.
Need a great audible? Van Pelt can make the call. How abou threading two defenders on a slant-in pattern? Van Pelt does it frequently. Reading blitzes is easy stuff.
No wonder Don Heinrich's national publication ranks him as the fourth-best quarterback in the country. And Van Pelt is only a junior.
"Alex has many attributes as a quarterback. He is the bes ball-handling quarterback I've ever coached," said Paul Hackett, Pitt's head coach, who has tutored Joe Montana, Danny White, Vince Evans and Paul McDonald. "He has great accuracy as a passer. He is fearless. He stands in the pocket under pressure as well as any quarterback I've ever coached, and he knows who to throw to and how to get the ball to the open man."
Van Pelt, 6 feet 2, 210 pounds, has completed 61 of 100 passe for 703 yards and six touchdowns this season. As Hackett said, "Van Pelt has played like a man on a mission."
Last year, according to Van Pelt's standards, he had a bad season. He completed 201 of 351 passes for 2,427 yards. He threw 17 interceptions as Pitt struggled through a 3-7-1 season, only the second Panthers losing season since 1973.
More importantly, Van Pelt had predicted at the beginning of th season the Panthers would play in a major bowl. Instead, Van Pelt was in his living room on Jan. 1.
The 1990 season followed a big year in 1989 when Van Pel completed 192 of 347 passes for 2,881 yards and 17 touchdowns. Pitt went 8-3-1 and beat Texas A&M, 31-28, in the John Hancock Bowl. Van Pelt became the second passer in Pitt history to throw for more than 2,000 yards. The other was Dan Marino, to whom Van Pelt was being compared.
"Last season was terrible, a disaster, because I tried to do to much instead of staying within the offense," said Van Pelt, a product of Winston Churchill High in San Antonio. "Now I'm more relaxed, playing within myself for my teammates and not playing for the spotlight, the media and the pro scouts."
Hackett said: "The first year was a fairy-tale kind of year. The second year was the harsh reality of playing big-time football. I think he learned a great deal, and psychologically is better equipped to deal with things this year."
Not all of Van Pelt's problems were on the field, or even durin the season, in 1990. A month before the season started, Van Pelt was arrested for public intoxication.
"Actually, I had played some basketball, then went to a place t get some Buffalo wings, and this guy started harassing some people I was with, including our team manager, who had just had a tumor removed from his head," Van Pelt said.
"We had a few words, and then we were asked to leave. I starte walking one way, and we came across each other again. The police came, and they sent us our separate ways again. But then he cut across, met me a few blocks later, and we had more words. The police arrested both of us and said I was intoxicated. I really didn't want any trouble so I didn't say anything, and they just hauled us away in the wagon. The charges were later dropped, and the guy eventually apologized. But that's all behind me now."
Van Pelt is on course to have another big season. He has throw for more than 200 yards in two games, and has two touchdown passes in three contests. He has mastered Pitt's one-back formation, which wasn't installed until the final regular-season game of 1989.
"He doesn't have great arm strength, but he doesn't make a lo of mental mistakes because he is a heady ballplayer," said Mel Kiper Jr., a draft analyst and commentator for ESPN. "He plays well within their system of short, controlled passes underneath the coverages."
Pitt's offense and defensive schemes are similar to Maryland's but both teams still expect problems.
"Their defense is probably the best we've seen all season," said Van Pelt, who has played against West Virginia, Southern Mississippi, Temple and Minnesota. "Their defensive line is outstanding. The cornerbacks shuffle instead of backpedaling, and they play their safeties on the outside instead of the inside. That's unusual, and it will take some time getting used to it."
Traditionally, Maryland has used five or six defensive backs against passing teams, especially against teams that use the five-step drop-back.
"Somehow, we've got to disrupt his rhythm," said Marylan cornerback Scott Rosen. "He has perfected that five-step
drop-back with that quick release."
Van Pelt's stats
Alex Van Pelt's passing statistics at Pitt:
Year.. .. G.. .. C-A.. .. Pct... Yds... In... .. TD
'89.. .. 12.. 192-347.. .553.. 2,880.. 12.. .. 17
'90.. .. 11.. 201-351.. .573.. 2,472.. 17.. .. 14
'91.. .. 4.. .61-100.. .610.. . 703.. ..2.. .. . 6