Palko born to play QB

Originally Published: January 1, 2005
By Ryan Hockensmith | ESPN The Magazine

TEMPE, Ariz. -- From about the day he could mumble, Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko was destined to bark signals. When he was born, his parents threw a "Future Quarterback" T-shirt on him. By the time he could hold a pen, he was designing plays for his dad, an assistant coach at western Pennsylvania's Seton LaSalle.

"We were too poor to have a babysitter," Palko says. "So I ended up with dad at practice every day."

With Rod Rutherford out of eligibility, blue-chip recruit Palko won the starting quarterback job this preseason. But the left-hander struggled with four interceptions in his first two games, and his Panthers limped to a 4-2 start that included near-losses to Temple and Div. I-AA Furman. Down the stretch, though, Palko emerged as a possible future Heisman threat.

As Pittsburgh ran off five wins in six games to eke into the BCS mix, Palko threw for 16 touchdowns against two interceptions. Now he's the unlikely offensive star for January's most unlikely bowl team. "I can't say I never saw myself in this position, because I did," he says. "That's why I play football."

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
Utah junior quarterback Alex Smith stayed mum all week on his future. With a huge chunk of the coaching staff and a large exodus of seniors leaving after tonight's game, Smith already sent an official petition to the NFL for an evaluation of his draft prospects. He hasn't heard back yet and says he still doesn't know what he'll do.

"I haven't decided," Smith told the media earlier this week. "I'm just trying to beat Pitt. This team deserves that."

The 6-foot-4, 212-pound junior is only 20 years old, has his economics degree and just finished fourth in the Heisman for a record-breaking bunch of BCS-crashers. He'll consult with Florida-bound Utah coach Urban Meyer and his uncle, Michigan State coach John L. Smith. Their advice probably will be to enter the draft.

Bugged Out
At 6-foot-6, 335 pounds. Pittsburgh tackle Rob Petitti has no problem squashing linebackers and defensive backs. But bugs? That's a different story. In a first-person column earlier this week for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Petitti detailed how he and roommate John Simonitis, a sophomore guard, found an ant-sized scorpion in their hotel bathroom. Petitti called the front desk and asked if the scorpion was deadly. The answer was no. "Hey, you never know what those things can do and I am not about to find out," he wrote.

Utah Fireman
All-WAC defensive tackle Sione Pouha had 35 tackles and two sacks this season. But the Utah senior's most significant play might have come two years ago. Late one night, Pouha awakened and heard his apartment complex's blaring fire alarms. Down the hallway, Pouha noticed smoke coming from a nearby apartment. He left the building and made sure somebody had called 911. But, concerned someone might still be inside, Pouha went back inside and broke through the apartment door. With smoke filling the room up, Pouha crawled along the floor until he found an unconscious woman. Pouha put his team-best 475-pound bench press to good use. He threw her over his shoulder and sprinted from the complex. The woman survived and Pouha later invited her to a Utah game.

Dec. 31, 2004

Pitt's Little WR That Could
He's not big. He's not fast. When he holds up his hands, it looks like Verne Troyer's waving down a cab. Pittsburgh's 5-foot-8, 200-pound wide receiver Joe DelSardo, obviously the recipient of a friendly spot in the media guide, isn't exactly Randy

"He's not even one of Randy Moss' legs," wisecracks his quarterback, Tyler Palko.

Seems all DelSardo has going for him is he's a very good wide receiver. DelSardo, second on the team with 40 catches for 464 yards, was small-school all-state as a senior at western Pennsylvania's Seton LaSalle High School and attended coach Walt Harris' passing camp as a senior. Still, DelSardo couldn't squeeze out a scholarship offer. He walked on last year and contributed on special teams. But on Sept. 10, the day before Pittsburgh opened the season against Ohio, Harris stunned him and exuberant teammates with the announcement that he'd earned a free ride. "I knew I could do this," DelSardo says. "I'm glad the coaches saw it and gave me a chance."

Taking Notes
Don't think Utah coaches haven't been watching other bowl games. Utes coach Urban Meyer says he's accumulated plenty of ammunition to tweak his team. It started with Wyoming's 24-21 upset of UCLA, an almost two-touchdown favorite, on Dec. 23. "Is Wyoming better than UCLA? I don't think so," Meyer says. "But they were that day." Now Meyer's added Texas Tech's 45-31 rout Thursday night to his pregame dig material. Except he doesn't even know if it's necessary. "It's kind of redundant now," Meyer said Friday. "I love their comments in the paper. When I see them use words like investment and preparation, I know there's no issue. If Pitt's better than us, they'll win. If they're not, then we will."

Picking Up The Blitz
To simulate Utah's aggressive defense (the Utes blitz roughly 40 percent of the time), Pittsburgh coaches spent Thursday's practice peppering the Panthers offensive line with scout team blitzes that came from anywhere and everywhere. Coaches barked, "Go! Go! Go!" at walk-ons and freshmen in red shirts as sophomore quarterback Tyler Palko read and reacted to each frenetic defensive set-up. Palko and his line didn't seem rattled. When his line picked up the blitzers, Palko connected deep to his wideouts. When somebody got through, Palko got rid of it quickly in the direction of the blitz. But Pittsburgh's scout team defense didn't generate 24 sacks, 16 interceptions and 13 fumbles. "It'll be a challenging game for Tyler," Harris says. "The game has slowed down a lot for him, but it'll be real important how quickly he, and everybody else, adapts to the speed of this game. We can't have guys coming in on him untouched."

Imitating Alex
Harris can't rave enough about Utah quarterback Alex Smith, who finished fourth in the Heisman. "He runs the option well, and he's also an outstanding passer," Harris said. "The other quality that separates him from most quarterbacks is, he's tough as nails. He's the guy who makes them go." To prep his defense for dual-threat Smith, Harris employed true freshman wide receiver Marcel Pestano as his scout-team quarterback. Pestano, a speedster out of Lehigh Acres in south Florida, did a solid impression Thursday, especially when the 6-foot-1, 180-pound 18-year-old broke loose on a barrage of option plays and sneaks from the shotgun.

A Fond Farewell
All-Big East nose tackle Vince Crochunis is the last of Pittsburgh's ballyhooed 1999 recruiting class. Crochunis, Antonio Bryant, Rod Rutherford, Gerald Hayes and others can be thanked for much of the Panthers turn-around in the late 1990s. So pardon the 6-foot-4, 290-pounder, the lone remaining player from that class, for being a little emotional after Thursday's practice, the last of his college career. Crochunis and his classmates chose Pittsburgh back then by looking at blueprints and sketches of what a proposed new stadium (Heinz Field) and training facility would look like. Five years later, Crochunis feels a little bit of everything as he concludes his career. "One side of me is very upset," he says. "Another side of me is very proud of what I've been able to accomplish. To be a part of turning around this program, I'll always cherish that."

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