December 1, 2003 RALEIGH Finally, after four years, the ACC's best quarterback will get his proper due. Philip Rivers had never been first-team All-ACC before this season, and he was never a real threat to win the ACC player of the year award. But since he owns virtually every passing record the league keeps and has even had his No. 17 jersey retired by the school, it was a nice parting gift when Rivers became a unanimous pick as the league's top quarterback. He easily will win the player of the year honor as well. At the beginning of the season, Rivers was a legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy, even though he knew he would need at least two things to get a real shot at winning the award: spectacular numbers and a lot of wins. He got the first but, unfortunately for the funny-throwing passer from Alabama, the Wolfpack didn't come through with the latter. In essence, Rivers' teammates let him down, because few if any of the Pack's five losses could be laid at his feet. Whether it was the young defense (no senior starters), multiple injuries to key players (tailback T.A. McLendon, tackle Chris Colmer) on offense or questionable coaching, State just didn't get the job done. Now there's even a question of whether Rivers, whose impressive numbers may get lost behind the Wolfpack's 7-5 record, will get an invitation to attend the Heisman presentation in New York on Dec. 13. That's a shame, because if the Pack had gone 10-2 or even 9-3 and Rivers had his current numbers, he might have even won the thing. Unfortunately, quarterbacks from schools such as N.C. State have no chance when the team's record is just over .500. Rivers might get to go to New York for the presentation after all, but the final home game of his career the day his jersey was retired was a big dud. He played poorly, and even though his teammates managed to get him a 24-10 lead going into the fourth quarter against Maryland, they couldn't seal the victory when it mattered most. Let's face it: No matter how close the Wolfpack came in games against Ohio State, Florida State or Maryland, the season was a huge disappointment. Even Rivers, one of the most upbeat players the ACC has ever seen, couldn't hide his disappointment when the school was invited to play in the Tangerine Bowl that's No. 4 in the league's postseason hierarchy for the second time in three years. But the Wolfpack played its way right out of a BCS possibility and trips to either the Gator or Peach bowls by losing its final two games of the regular season. It was as if the team, which lost the triple-overtime heartbreaker at Ohio State early in the season, gained nothing from that experience. With as many close calls as Chuck Amato's team had, you'd think somewhere along the way a bunch with Rivers, McLendon and star wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery would have learned how to finish someone off. They could have done it at Florida State, if McLendon hadn't fumbled just before halftime, and if sophomore receiver Brian Clark hadn't fumbled late in the fourth quarter. Even easier would have been a win over Amato's nemesis Maryland, but a poorly covered punt before halftime led to a field goal, and another crucial McLendon fumble in the fourth quarter opened the door for the Terrapins' unlikely comeback. Rivers finished his remarkable career 0-4 against the Terps, the only ACC opponent he never beat. If the Wolfpack was the league's most disappointing team, then there is no doubt that McLendon was the ACC's most disappointing individual player. Sure, he was a trooper for playing through his multiple injuries: knee, shoulder, hamstring, etc. But you get the feeling that Amato may never again let whoever his coordinator might be next year call a play for No. 44 in certain circumstances. Not after the fumble that set up Maryland's go-ahead field goal in the regular-season finale. That was simply dumb football, as was McLendon's miscue deep in his own territory against the Seminoles, with absolutely nothing to gain and just moments before halftime.
Rivers: Great Honor, Poor Timing? Amato and the N.C. State athletic department had been planning for months to retire Rivers' jersey in the final home game. But it was a gesture that was just too brash and bold for a team that should have been more focused on getting the win it needed to go to a better bowl. None of this is a knock on Rivers. It's been inevitable for some time that his jersey would hang between decks at Carter-Finley Stadium with Ted Brown, Roman Gabriel, Bill Yoest, Dennis Byrd, Dick Christie and Torry Holt. But did it really need to happen before his final home game? The school retired the jersey of Brown, the ACC's all-time leading rusher for more than a quarter of a century, before his last game for the Wolfpack in 1979. But will Rivers' passing records last as long as Brown's rushing record? Probably not. Records don't tend to keep these days, and passing in college football is waxing while running the ball is waning. Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst might have a shot at breaking some of Rivers' marks before his career is over two years from now, and Whitehurst (unlike Rivers) didn't even start every game of his freshman year. Seeing Rivers play in the Gator Bowl again (a slim possibility) or in the Peach Bowl for the first time (a sure thing if the Wolfpack had beaten Maryland) would have been a better tribute than having him accept the framed jersey at mid-field before the season was even complete. Rivers himself said one of the few goals he had left was to play a game against an opponent from the SEC turf he once called home, which would have happened had the Pack beaten the Terps. Despite predictions of a fun, high-scoring affair, the Tangerine matchup against 6-6 Kansas just doesn't have the same allure. The presentation was supposed to be the culmination of Rivers' fine career, but in the end it took away from the accomplishments of the other seniors. Even Cotchery, a two-time first-team All-ACC wide receiver, was practically lost in the crowd. Why not wait until an appropriate moment next season, or even let Rivers and his family enjoy the moment during a basketball game at the RBC Center? That's when Holt accepted his honor. Retiring Rivers' jersey was inevitable, but the timing could have been more appropriate. Hoops: Schedule Will Get Better Herb Sendek and his basketball team went to Michigan on Dec. 2 for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge with some further knowledge of what the season might be like, but not a lot. The three stunningly weak opponents the Wolfpack faced in November UNC Asheville, Howard and Florida A&M offered little resistance in those early games. Feisty freshman point guard Mike O'Donnell got his feet wet in a surprise starting role, and sophomore forward Ilian Evtimov continued to get more comfortable playing on his reconstructed left knee. Freshman guard Engin Atsur served his three-game suspension. But neither Sendek nor his team knows how it will play against an even decent opponent. Junior Julius Hodge will score, as will seniors Scooter Sherrill and Marcus Melvin. Nobody knows, though, who will rebound and who will lead, the two biggest questions the Wolfpack had coming into the season. The continually weak schedules, a hallmark of Sendek's eight-year tenure, seem unnecessary for a veteran team. Fortunately, with Michigan, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, South Carolina, UNC Wilmington, Brigham Young, Boston College and Washington still to come, the schedule will get better this season. And the worst, in case you missed it, is over.