It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Pitt junior quarterback Rod Rutherford.
The script called for the hometown kid to parade onto Heinz Field in his first career start and put all those doubters out of their misery.
It did not happen.
Rutherford struggled in a 27-14 victory over Mid-American Conference weakling Ohio on Saturday night in front of 41,479 fans.
The two questions that came to mind immediately afterward were simple: Is Rutherford ready for the big timeâ¢ Is a quarterback controversy imminent with ballyhooed freshman Tyler Palko waiting in the wings?
Time will tell how it all plays out, but this much is certain: Rutherford must raise his level of play if the Panthers have any hope of defeating No. 23 Texas A&M next Saturday at Heinz Field.
Rutherford finished 9 of 22 for 97 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. His passes were not as crisp as they had been during training camp. Moreover, he nearly had an interception returned for a touchdown in the first quarter, then nearly threw another that would have gone for a score had an Ohio defender not dropped a ball that hit him square in the chest.
It should also be pointed out that he was not entirely at fault for his poor numbers, as the Panthers wideouts dropped four catchable balls.
In the wake of his team’s opening-game victory, coach Walt Harris did not seem concerned about his inexperienced quarterback.
“I think Rod performed well with the playing time and this will help him improve,” Harris said. “I thought he was pretty good, sometimes real good. We had drops that were crucial. He made a heck of a play on a goal-line run (that was called back). We’re just bringing in the Rod Rutherford Era slowly.”
Make no mistake, Rutherford’s woes were only part of the problem for the Panthers, who could not put Ohio away after taking a 20-0 lead. They were unable to establish a running game, allowed Ohio tailback Chad Brinker to rush for 119 yards on 24 carries and appeared to lack a killer instinct.
The highly regarded Pitt defense, which returned seven starters from a unit that ranked in the top 30 nationally in four categories last season, gave up 204 rushing yards on 48 attempts against Ohio’s option attack and yielded 283 yards overall.
“Their offense was the hardest for us to prepare for in a long time,” said senior linebacker Gerald Hayes, who had 11 tackles. “They spread us out.”
The Panthers offense, meanwhile, could not match the Bobcats, gaining 96 rushing yards on 44 attempts and 193 yards overall.
Rutherford, a Perry Traditional Academy grad, could have alleviated some of the shortcomings with a strong effort, but it wasn’t meant to be on a night when the Panthers extended their winning streak to seven games dating back to last season.
As a result, questions will linger as to whether Rutherford should be supplanted by Palko, who played only one series in the second quarter and took just three snaps. Harris said his decision to use Palko should have come as no surprise.
“Traditionally, I’ve played second-stringers in those situations,” Harris said. “If we hadn’t moved the ball, we might have gone back to him. I was hoping it was more than three downs.”
At the outset of last night’s game, Rutherford started with a bang, hitting his first pass attempt to sophomore Roosevelt Bynes for 10 yards on third-and-four from the Ohio 45.
He followed with another completion, a 7-yarder to Lamar Slade, before throwing his first incompletion of the evening on a drop by Slade.
His fourth pass was as good as it gets, a picture-perfect 26-yard touchdown pass to Slade on a post pattern. Rutherford used a five-step drop, then unleashed a tight spiral that fell directly into the hands of Slade over defensive back Bop White.
The crowd went wild. Rutherford thrust his fists into the air. And all seemed well for the kid who’s spent three years waiting for an opportunity.
Then, the bleeding began. … At least momentarily.
Rutherford attempted a pass to starting tailback Raymond Kirkley on a screen, but Kirkley was hit while running out of the backfield and Rutherford let the pass fly right into the arms of Ohio linebacker Bob Stover.
He made up for the turnover two series later when he sent a shovel pass to Kirkley, who ran 9 yards for a touchdown. The score culminated a 13-play, 67-yard drive and gave the Panthers a 14-0 lead with 7:59 remaining before halftime.
Two field goals pushed the lead to 20-0, but a lack of a solid defensive effort and a stalled Panthers offense kept the Bobcats in the game.
Ohio closed the margin to 20-7 on a 6-yard touchdown run by Brinker, capping an eight-play, 54-yard drive. Pitt scored after cornerback Shawntae Spencer snatched his second of three interceptions that set the Panthers up at the Ohio 2. One play later, fullback Lousaka Polite scored, making it 27-17.
Ohio closed on the scoring an 18-yard run by backup quarterback Fred Ray with 8:02 remaining. From there, the Panthers held on, though the win was far from convincing.
“It was kind of ugly, but we pulled it off,” Slade said. “There were some doubts at certain times. … I think Rod did a good job, it was his first game. He got some kinks out. We have some work to do and it starts now.”