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Madden: Rutherford earns his turn at Pitt

Saturday, August 31, 2002

There shouldn't be a quarterback controversy at Pitt. Rod Rutherford, now in his fourth year in Coach Walt Harris' system, has paid his dues. By all accounts, Rutherford has had a solid preseason. He isn't the starting quarterback simply because it's his turn. Rutherford earned the job.

But there will be a quarterback controversy at Pitt. It will come sooner, not later.

That was guaranteed the moment Harris made Tyler Palko the No. 2 quarterback.

Palko, a true freshman from West Allegheny High School, will be seen as a potential savior by Pitt fans the minute Rutherford is perceived as struggling, which will be after he throws two consecutive incompletions. Can't you just hear it? "Start the kid! Let's see what the kid can do!"

Should Pitt's season disintegrate, feel free to add the following mantra: "What do we have to lose?"

Rutherford was once seen as the local savior. But three years of relative anonymity at Pitt have lowered his profile. And don't forget, this is Pittsburgh. A golden boy tends to tarnish a little quicker when he's a black athlete.

Harris could have avoided this quandary -- which is now unavoidable -- if Pat Hoderny had improved enough to earn the No. 2 job, thus making Palko disappear via the redshirt route.

But Hoderny isn't seen as a viable option at Pitt despite being in his third season with the program. Hoderny hasn't sufficiently grasped Harris' system, and he's viewed as a bad actor of sorts. Don't be surprised when Hoderny transfers or if Harris doesn't care.

Despite the inevitable fan pressure, the ball is in Rutherford's court.

Harris has a lot of confidence in Rutherford, who is comfortable with the offense and confident in his own abilities.

Being the main guy has given him a swagger that hasn't been seen since he ripped apart the City League with Perry Traditional Academy.

Harris planned to start Rutherford at quarterback eventually. That's why he never asked Rutherford to switch positions despite a bevy of people -- both inside and outside Pitt's program -- who felt that was a good idea. Harris believes Rutherford can do the job.

But that belief could wither when Rutherford actually starts doing the job. He might not be the man to execute Harris' offense the way the coach prefers it done.

Harris is West Coast, baby, just like Tupac. Rutherford might not have the accuracy to hit short and medium-range passes time and again the way Harris' offense demands.

At some point, Harris might remember that his offense requires a pure passer.

And at that point, Harris might realize that Palko is a better pure passer than Rutherford.

Then Harris is in a real dilemma: What matters more, giving Rutherford a long-term chance or maintaining the sanctity of his offense?

A question like that might trouble Harris for as long as 30 seconds. No sleep would be lost. Harris will change quarterbacks long before he ever changes his offense.

That's the way it should be, too. Pitt quarterbacks have come and gone, but Harris' offense always has been successful. Well, except for that no-huddle nonsense at the start of last season. Harris never will turn Pitt into a team that leans primarily on the run.

Rutherford played in the City League. He had very little specialized coaching and played against good competition infrequently.

Palko played WPIAL Class AAA football. He's the son of a coach and played against better teams on a week-to-week basis.

Palko just seems to fit the mold of a Harris quarterback better than Rutherford does.

That said, Rutherford has the tremendous edge of opening the season with the job. Here's hoping he succeeds, because he's a class act and deserves his shot. Rutherford never complained about not playing. He just worked hard, learned the offense and waited for his opportunity. Here it is.

If fans start clamoring for Palko, Rutherford will handle it. He has been under scrutiny ever since he arrived at Pitt and won't buckle under pressure.

There's no doubt Rutherford can run. If Harris can take a page or two from Mike Mularkey's playbook and let Rutherford use his legs a bit, Pitt will be better for it.

But Rutherford just isn't an accurate passer. Observers say he got better during camp, but I'm not sure accuracy is something a quarterback suddenly learns as a redshirt junior.

The West Coast offense requires an accurate passer. Harris' version of it requires an accurate passer.

Rutherford's aim had better be true. Or the Pitt faithful might be demanding that Palko be christened the starter as soon as tonight's opener against Ohio is over.


Mark Madden is the host of a talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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