Rivers suited for starring role

Despite lack of accolades, N.C. State QB putting up record-setting numbers

November 20, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

RALEIGH, N.C. - The scene reminded Chuck Amato, then North Carolina State's brand new football coach, of something out of the movie, My Cousin Vinny.

There was Amato, the fast-talking, barrel-chested Italian who had been freshly hired off Bobby Bowden's staff at Florida State days after the Seminoles had beaten Virginia Tech for the national championship. Amato's first stop was the little town of Athens, Ala., for a visit with quarterback Philip Rivers.

As big a fan of college football as Rivers was, he didn't know what Amato looked like.

"He came in a suit with his big chest right out there," Rivers recalled of their 30-minute meeting at Athens High School. "He was very impressive. I felt comfortable with him from the start."

As their meeting was winding down, Amato asked in his now familiar raspy voice, "Are you comin' or not?"

Rivers, who was first recruited for N.C. State by former Wolfpack coach Mike O'Cain after his sophomore year, would pass up home state schools Auburn and Alabama because, as he said recently, "I don't like doing the ordinary."

What Rivers has done in the past four years is certainly proof of that.

He has become one of the most accomplished - and durable - quarterbacks in NCAA history. Come Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium, Rivers will start his 50th straight game, breaking the record of 49 set by former Syracuse star Donovan McNabb, when the Wolfpack meets Maryland.

Asked if he could put into words the kind of career Rivers has had at N.C. State, Amato said yesterday, "No, because when you talk about it, you put it in tears. I will never be around somebody like him for the rest of my coaching days and he's done it from Day One."

With 12,733 yards passing (the third-highest total ever in Division I-A) and 90 touchdowns (seventh overall), Rivers is already the most prolific quarterback in school and ACC history. Somehow, personal recognition has eluded him. Though it should come this season, he has yet to be named first-team all-ACC.

"Certainly individual acknowledgement is nice, but to me, the No. 1 goal of a quarterback is to win games," said Rivers, who is 33-16 with the Wolfpack. "From that standpoint, I can't be satisfied with the way I played, because we're not winning those games we thought we should have."

Amato believes that Rivers has been shortchanged when it comes to individual awards, specifically this year's Heisman Trophy, because the Wolfpack has never been in the hunt for a national championship. N.C. State is currently 7-4, with two of those losses coming in triple overtime at Ohio State and double overtime at Florida State.

Regardless of the records he has broken, one of the biggest disappointments for Rivers in his college career has been N.C. State's inability to beat the Terps. The past two meetings have been especially painful: a last-minute 23-19 loss here two years ago and a 24-21 defeat last season after N.C. State led 21-7.

"Maryland has kind of been our Achilles' heel," Rivers said in an interview last month.

Despite his team's success against N.C. State, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen has tremendous respect for a quarterback he believes is one of the best in the country.

"I think he's even improved over last year," Friedgen said yesterday. "I think his mechanics are so much better. He's throwing the ball on time more. He already possesses tremendous vision and a strong arm, and he's pretty accurate. Put that with a receiver corps that's right up there with Florida State, and it's a tough offense for our defense to contend with."

Rivers had hoped that the Wolfpack would contend for a national championship this season after finishing 11-3 last year, but injuries to several key members of the defense and tailback T.A. McLendon have contributed to an uneven performance.

Few have criticized Rivers, who this season is ranked third overall in passing in Division I-A with a nation-best 72.3 pass completion percentage to go along with 3,740 yards and 29 touchdowns. He has thrown only six interceptions in 408 attempts. Rivers is fourth overall in passing efficiency.

"I feel like I've been playing very well, but I find little things every week that I can get better," said Rivers, who has thrown for over 800 yards and eight touchdowns [with no interceptions] the past two weeks.

What has made the pitfalls of the past two seasons a little more palatable is Rivers' family life. He and his wife, Tiffany, whom he met when they were in middle school and married after his freshman year, now have a daughter, Halle, age 15 months.

"I try to leave it here as much as possible," Rivers said. "If anything, a bad day at practice or a loss or anything, it's certainly comforting to go home. That helps those kinds of things. It keeps you grounded and level headed when you've got a little one running around. It puts it into perspective."

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