On the first Saturday in November 2002, unranked Pitt visited unbeaten #3 Virginia Tech. Larry Fitzgerald’s first seven games had been promising — about five catches and 80 yards per game — but hadn’t made him a national name.
The Hokies’ opposing coordinator was Bud Foster. He’d built one of the country’s best defensive traditions on aggression. No matter who you had, Foster blitzed the hell out of you. He trusted his cornerbacks to cover your receivers with little help, because his guys were better than your guys.
But in this game, Foster ran into a problem: Fitzgerald was better than his guys. Watching along, you start to get this sense when he Mosses a 31-yard TD in the first quarter:
You’re pretty sure when he comes down with this 14-yard fade:
And really sure when he tracks down a Willie Mays ball despite wearing a Hokie backpack:
Pitt won. Fitzgerald finished with five catches for 105 yards. He didn’t become Larry Fitzgerald until the next season, but everybody knew on November 2, 2002: he was a big problem. His 12 receiving TDs led the 2002 Big East, but they are forgettable, in light of what happened next.
Larry Fitzgerald put up numbers in a conservative 2003 conference that would’ve been bonkers even in a 2019 Big 12 air raid.
In the early 2000s, the spread offense had yet to become truly widespread. It was harder for receivers to put up video game numbers.
Between 2000 and 2018, nine FBS receivers had 20-touchdown seasons. All but one happened in 2006 or later, as the spread continued to take over football. All but one happened in the frequently wide-open Big 12, Mountain West, or Conference USA.
That one exception: Fitzgerald’s 2003 total of 22. The next highest receiving TD total in the 22-year history of Big East football was 13, making this one of the starkest cases of one player lapping decades’ worth of an entire conference.
In 2003’s ground-and-pound Big East, every team but Temple drastically favored the run over the pass, and nobody was close to the top of the nation in snaps per game. Fitzgerald’s team was pretty typical, 68th in the 117-team FBS at 70 offensive snaps per game and 53rd in pass attempts per game. Every other national receiver in Fitzgerald’s statistical neighborhood played on a team that chucked the rock much more frequently.
“We’re sitting there in [the I formation], two backs, where they have a chance to have a corner, safety over the top every time,” Fitzgerald’s offensive coordinator, J.D. Brookhart, says. “And then we’re playing at a slow pace. We’re in the huddle, taking our time.”
There have been bigger raw numbers than Fitzgerald’s. But Troy Edwards catching 28 TDs in 1998 at Louisiana Tech, when Tim Rattay threw 559 passes, is no more impressive than Fitzgerald nabbing 22 in 2003, when Rod Rutherford threw 413. Had Fitzgerald seen a bigger volume of passes, he might hold all sorts of records.
Fitzgerald caught a touchdown every 19.4 passes. That’s a more efficient clip than any FBS-leading receiver after him. The only ones close were Baylor’s Corey Coleman in 2015 (19.5), Rice’s Jarrett Dillard in 2006 (20.7), and West Virginia’s Stedman Bailey in 2012 (21.2). All played in spread-out, up-tempo games the opposite of the 2003 Big East’s.
Even without any adjustment for pace or era, Fitzgerald’s 1,672 yards in 2003 would’ve led FBS in 2015 or 2017. But if you stuck him in the modern Big 12, he likely could’ve bettered Michael Crabtree’s power-conference record (1,962) and the all-FBS mark of 2,060 by Nevada’s Trevor Insley in 1999.
The most stunning thing about Fitzgerald’s physical dominance is that he wasn’t all that physically dominant. Let me explain.
He had good height at 6’3, but nothing too out of the ordinary. At the NFL Combine, his 4.48 40 tied for 11th among receivers in attendance. He was a smooth route runner, but wasn’t one of those college receivers who got open by five yards with amazing agility.
“He didn’t need to be,” Brookhart says.
Two traits were key to Fitzgerald’s circus catches: hands and body positioning.
“It was the ability to position himself to catch the ball away from the defender,” Brookhart says. “He had an uncanny [ability to] catch and tuck the ball away from the defender that you just don’t see out there, and his hands were phenomenal. He had great hands, best hands I’ve ever seen.
“But the way he positioned himself to catch the ball away from the defender was uncanny. And his ball-tracking skills were phenomenal.”
This is why Fitzgerald caught nearly every 50-50 ball, not to mention a bunch of 20-80s. He could match against a DB who could run just as fast, change directions just as quickly, and jump just as high, yet Fitzgerald would box that guy out without losing a step.
Or he could do that to two DBs at once. Think about what Fitzgerald did here:
The throw was a little bit ahead of Fitzgerald. So was a Texas A&M safety. Fitzgerald’s right shoulder seals that safety (#23) from the ball, creating leverage as they run toward the pass.
Then Fitzgerald’s left shoulder closes off the cornerback (#31) between him and the sideline. He does all of that without slowing down, losing balance, or losing sight of a ball behind him.
At practice, Pitt used a pat-and-go drill, in which a DB and a receiver run side by side along a go route, keeping similar speeds so they can contest the ball. In this drill, the OC says he saw the most gobsmacking thing Fitzgerald ever did.
“He could run a go route, keep his shoulders square, and still be flexible in the neck to look back and track it with his inside eye,” Brookhart says. “And he had one where he was doing that, the guy was right with him, and he’s looking up over his left shoulder out of his left eye, with one eye tracking the ball.”
The ball was supposed to arrive on Fitzgerald’s left, but veered to the right.
“The ball went behind his head,” Brookhart says. “He kept his head looking left. The ball went behind his head, and he caught it one-handed at waist level. It was unbelievable.”
Fitzgerald can do more with one eye and one hand than lots of receivers can do with two of each.
There was nothing defenses didn’t try.
“We saw everything,” Brookhart says. “You’d move a bigger body on him. You’d play a safety over the top. They’d bracket him. They’d play two-man. Anything they could, to get extra bodies over the top, because he caught a lot of deep balls too. For not having blazing speed, he caught a lot. And that was our challenge. ‘OK, what are they doing? How do we move him around to get him open?’”
Pitt’s answer was to give Fitzgerald a lot of option routes, using run-and-shoot principles to let the WR and QB Rod Rutherford find grass. Pitt also dialed up a lot of pre-snap RPOs for Fitzgerald, about a decade before they were called RPOs.
“He was one of those guys, when you got to the five-yard line, you called a run play and just tagged it with a fade route, and if they only kept one guy out there, we threw it to him,” Brookhart says.
Fitzgerald’s outside fade also had an option attached: an inside slant. The fear of a Fitzgerald alley-oop was so strong that corners often cheated toward the deep pylon. When they did, the slant was there, even if a linebacker or another DB was in the area.
In 2003, #21 Pitt and #5 Virginia Tech played again, this time with College GameDay at Heinz Field. The year before, when Fitzgerald hadn’t established himself, the Hokies played man coverage against him and got wrecked. That was not the plan in ‘03, in part because Fitzgerald was now a superstar and in part because Tech’s best corner, DeAngelo Hall, was suspended for the first half.
In that half, Tech did as well against Fitzgerald as anyone could. He still caught a 41-yarder and a TD on one of Brookhart’s RPOs:
In the second half, Hall returned. Again, the Hokies focused on Fitzgerald and limited his damage — for a bit. With four minutes left, Pitt trailed 28-24 and took the ball at its own 30. Fitzgerald:
- caught a 29-yarder on the first play, right in front of Hall,
- caught an 11-yarder on the next play, right in front of Hall,
- and caught a nine-yarder a few plays later, between Hall and four other Hokies.
By then, the Hokies had reason to be obsessed with stopping Fitzgerald.
With 54 seconds left, Pitt had third-and-goal. Fitzgerald and Hall lined up on an island. But the Hokies didn’t trust their best corner by himself.
At the snap, Hall bounced outward, expecting a Fitzgerald fade. The outside linebacker ran to cover a Fitzgerald slant.
That left Pitt with a numbers advantage at the line. Fullback Lousaka Polite found room: Pitt 31, Tech 28.
Fitzgerald demanded attention not just because he was great, but because he was the focus to an unusual extent even for a megastar receiver.
Coming on 92 catches, his 1,672 yards were 301 more than the next highest single-season total in Big East history, by Kenny Britt at Rutgers in 2008.
As a team, Pitt ran for 117.5 yards per game. Fitzgerald’s average receiving yards were 128.6. He provided 31.8% of Pitt’s offense, approaching some Heisman* running backs (Derrick Henry was 36.1% of Alabama’s offense in 2015). Pitt made Fitzgerald into a bell cow ... who averaged 18.1 yards per touch.
* Speaking of the Heisman, one of the all-time best WRs finished second in voting behind Oklahoma’s Jason White, who ranked #7 in passer rating, #12 in total yardage, and #20 in completion percentage. That Fitzgerald should’ve won is so obvious, we’re not even going to argue about it. Back to the rest of the post.
Fitzgerald caught a touchdown in an FBS-record 18 games in a row. The last was the worst of his career: a 28-14 loss to Miami. Fitzgerald had three catches for 26 yards, and his TD was an 18-yarder in garbage time.
Even the team that shut down Fitzgerald is a testament to his greatness. The Canes didn’t exactly beat Fitzgerald — they made it nearly impossible for him to participate. They sacked Rutherford nine times and were constantly in the QB’s face. Jon Vilma, Vince Wilfork, D.J. Williams, and Orien Harris wrecked Pitt’s offensive line. Miami had Antrel Rolle cover Fitzgerald and often put Sean Taylor behind Rolle.
“It’s kind of the perfect storm to a rough day,” Brookhart says. “They were very physical with him, very physical, and they had similar body types on and over the top of him. They weren’t gonna allow you to throw it to him, not with the timing, not like you wanted to.”
That’s what it took to stop Larry Fitzgerald.
If you happened to have arguably the most talented roster ever, a Pro Bowl cornerback/safety combo frequently focused on just one guy, and an NFL front that could keep Pitt’s quarterback from even throwing, you could stop Larry Fitzgerald.
If you didn’t, you couldn’t.