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Pitt receiver posting Heisman Trophy numbers

When the Pitt football team plays out of town, the overriding buzz in opposing press boxes focuses on one specific topic: Larry Fitzgerald.

Beat writers rave about the sophomore wideout. National publications come to see him play. Columnists opine about his greatness.

These things are meaningful to Pitt and to Fitzgerald because several of these men and women will be casting votes for the Heisman Trophy at the conclusion of the 2003 season.

Fitzgerald is currently staging a campaign that could land him college football’s biggest prize.

His skills were on display in front of a packed press box — not to mention a national television audience — Saturday in the Panthers’ 37-26 victory at Texas A&M. It was a statement game for Fitzgerald, who had forged sparkling numbers the opening three contests at the expense of Mid-American Conference foes.

Texas A&M was expected to provide him with his first true test. On the road. With an ABC television audience watching his every move.

He passed, easily.

All Fitzgerald did was catch seven passes for 135 yards with three touchdowns. He had a 34-yard score over two defensive backs in the first quarter, a 5-yard reach-around grab that he clutched on his outside hip, and a 49-yard, over-the-head touchdown reception between three defenders, which sealed the Panthers’ victory.

He did these things in front of Pitt’s last Heisman Trophy winner, Tony Dorsett, who won the award in 1976.

“He’s probably the best I’ve ever played against,” Texas A&M free safety Jaxson Appel said. “He’ll make a lot of money playing this game one day.”

Aggies coach Dennis Franchione took things one step further.

“Fitzgerald may be as good a receiver as I’ve ever seen,” Franchione said. “If he’s not on the ESPN highlights tonight … he’s just a talent.”

For the season, Fitzgerald has 32 catches for 583 yards with nine touchdowns. He’s caught a touchdown pass in 10 consecutive games and is three away from tying the NCAA record of 13 set by Michigan State’s Charles Rogers last season.

He leads the nation in receiving yards per game at 145.75 and is fourth in receptions at 8.0 yards.

Fitzgerald has posted 100-yard outings in each of Pitt’s (3-1) four games and moved to 10th place on the Panthers’ career receptions list with 101 in only his 17th career game. Moreover, he has 18 touchdowns in the past 10 games and is ninth on Pitt’s all-time receiving yardage list.

What makes his numbers extra impressive is the fact that he faces double- and triple-teams on every route. Yet, even when he has multiple defensive backs surrounding him, he typically comes down with the ball.

He constantly faces comparisons to former Pitt wideout Antonio Bryant, who won the Biletnikoff Award as a true sophomore in 2000, but the two players have different styles. Fitzgerald uses power and leverage, while Bryant, now with the Dallas Cowboys, uses his flexibility and speed. Both have superior hands and a penchant for ripping the ball from anybody who gets near it.

Pitt coach Walt Harris has said Fitzgerald has the best ball-in-the-air skills of any receiver he’s been around, and Harris has been around seven first-round draft picks. Bryant was a second-round selection by Dallas following his true junior season.

The pass-and-catch combination of Fitzgerald and senior quarterback Rod Rutherford is arguably the best in the nation. Rutherford is even putting up Heisman-like numbers with 74 completions in 120 attempts for 1,171 yards with 16 touchdowns and three interceptions.

He leads the nation in passing efficiency at 182.6 and is seventh in total offense at 316.8.

He was 14 of 28 for 283 yards with five scores Saturday, marking the third time in four games he’s had at least four touchdown passes.

Of course, the best route to the Heisman Trophy is a winning team, which is all that concerns Fitzgerald.

“If I have no catches and no yards and we win, that’s the best thing,” Fitzgerald said. “All that other stuff — I don’t even think about.”


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