- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2003

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Welcome to the season’s first Heisman Trophy audition.

With a pair of nearly flawless performances behind him, N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers rolls into Columbus as one of the early favorites to collect the stiff-arming statue. And if the leader of the ‘Pack directs an upset of the third-ranked Buckeyes (2-0) today at Ohio Stadium, you might want to color him bronze.

“He’s the man,” Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato said this week. “He’s the guy who makes the team go, and he loves to shoulder it. But what better person could you have to put it on his shoulders than Philip Rivers? If you look at the people involved in [the Heisman race], his stats are as good as any. We’ve got to win for that to happen for him. But if he continues on this pace, he will deserve everything he gets.”

The pace Rivers has established in N.C. State’s first two games would make Steve Spurrier blush. The 6-foot-5, 236-pound side-armer has completed 64 of 79 passes for 753 yards and six touchdowns. For the math-challenged, that’s an 81 percent completion rate.



“That’s just unreal,” Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. “We’ve had guys around here, and I mean pretty good ones, who couldn’t complete four out of five balls against air.”

In fact, Rivers’ play has been so sublime this season that he actually might have increased his Heisman stock in a loss. Though the 24th-ranked Wolfpack (1-1) dropped a 38-24 stunner last week at Wake Forest, Rivers completed 38 of 49 for a career-best 433 yards and three touchdowns. It was exactly that kind of explosive potential that prompted Amato to make securing Rivers’ signature his top priority the minute he was hired at N.C. State on Jan.6, 2000.

Two days after Amato was named head man at his alma mater, he took a trip to tiny Athens, Ala., to speak to Rivers, the state’s 1999 prep player of the year.

“Philip had been recruited by [former N.C. State coach] Mike O’Cain, and he was waffling on his commitment after the change,” Amato said. “So I got down there, looked him in the eye and said, ‘You’re my guy. The ball is waiting for you up in Raleigh.’ It was a risk for both of us because coaches don’t usually make those types of promises. But I think even my wife would tell you it’s the best decision I ever made.”

Three years and 38 starts later, Rivers has provided the foundation for Amato’s burgeoning ACC force. Since the pair arrived in Raleigh, the Wolfpack are 27-13 with three consecutive bowl appearances and two victories over league bully Florida State. And the kid many powerhouse programs refused to recruit because of his awkward sidearm delivery is poised to become the most prolific passer in ACC history. Rivers, N.C. State’s all-time leading passer with 9,746 yards, needs 94 against Ohio State to eclipse former Florida State star Chris Weinke.

Given that Rivers has never thrown for less than 129 yards, you’re more likely to see Maurice Clarett in uniform than Rivers completely snuffed by the Buckeyes.

“When you have someone like Philip Rivers, you can be a very good, very scary football team on offense,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. “There’s not a blitz he hasn’t seen. There’s not a coverage he hasn’t faced. There’s not a situation that he hasn’t been in.”

That’s not entirely true. Though Rivers and his mates have won in Tallahassee, they have never gone on the road to face a defending national champion in front of more than 100,000 raucous fans.

“I know it’s going to be wild in there, and I really can’t wait,” Rivers said earlier this week. “Ohio State has one of the great traditions and great stadiums in the college game.”

That’s a fairly typical sample of the Rivers rhetoric. He’s never authored a bulletin-board quote in his life. And he isn’t likely to show up at the ‘Shoe wearing fatigues. He’s an aw-shucks kind of guy and a disciple of the crewcut, the son of a high school football coach.

In fact, it’s exactly that squeaky clean-cut image that should earn him a mountain of Heisman swing votes should the race come down to a popularity contest. Most politicians would kill for his credentials. Here’s a guy who didn’t marry his high school sweetheart — he married his junior high sweetheart. Here’s a guy who has a 1-year-old daughter, another on the way and credibly claims never to have wanted the typical college experience.

“I love hanging out with the guys at practice and such, but I was never a party type,” Rivers said before the season. “I like to go home and hang out with the two people I know will love me no matter how I play.”

Here’s a guy whose idea of fun growing up was memorizing his father’s playbook, which he had mastered at age 8. Here’s a guy with a 3.2 GPA in business finance. Frankly, he’s the anti-Clarett.

And perhaps most refreshingly, he concedes he would love to win the Heisman.

“Sure, it’s a big thrill to be a Heisman candidate,” said Rivers, who has a Heisman Web site at www.philiprivers.com. “I am at the point now where I’ve played so many games that I can be honest in the fact that I see the personal opportunities. … It doesn’t add any pressure. It’s what you play for. It’s one of those things you dream about when you’re little. When you actually get the chance, you don’t want to downplay it.”

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