Roethlisberger puts cap on stellar season, career

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 19, 2003

MOBILE, Ala. - Ben Roethlisberger shed defenders, threw perfect strikes on the run and then made his next big move - to the NFL.

The Miami of Ohio junior who became a high-profile star for a typically low-profile program capped his college career with a 49-28 victory over Louisville in the GMAC Bowl on Thursday night.

Then, he bid farewell to the team he directed to 13 consecutive wins, a No. 14 ranking and a Mid-American Conference championship.

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Flanked by friends and family, Roethlisberger said after the game that he was leaving school early for the NFL.

''The unbelievable team success of this season has fulfilled so many of my collegiate football goals,'' Roethlisberger said after passing for 376 yards and four first-half touchdowns.

Now he'll join former Marshall quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich in going from the MAC to the NFL.

''This is a special season, it's a special team, led by a special man in Coach (Terry) Hoeppner,'' Roethlisberger said.

Roethlisberger, a third-team AP All-American is a likely top 10 pick in April's NFL draft and showed why against the Cardinals, completing 21 of 33 passes and making a handful of head-turning plays when it appeared he would be sacked.

The RedHawks (13-1) extended major college football's longest winning streak after racing to a 35-7 second-quarter lead. Miami scored two more touchdowns in the fourth to stymie a rally by Louisville (9-4), which has lost five bowl games in the past six years.

Roethlisberger led the RedHawks to their first bowl appearance since 1986 and their first postseason win in 28 years, punctuating the team's only 13-win season. After a season-opening loss at Iowa when Roethlisberger was picked off four times, Miami rebounded to match its longest winning streak, set from 1972-74.

Roethlisberger told the team before the game the Miami season was like a novel. The Iowa game was the only bad chapter.

''I said, 'This is becoming a bestseller. People are starting to really buy this book,''' Roethlisberger said. ''I said, 'How do you want to end the book? Do you want it to be a sad ending or do you want it to be pretty happy?' We made it a happy story.''

Especially for Roethlisberger, who was 16-of-20 for 291 yards before halftime. In the first two quarters, the RedHawks had 16 plays that gained 10 yards or more.

''He is all that they talked about,'' Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. ''He is a great player. We couldn't tackle him, and he made some great throws.''

The RedHawks outgained Louisville 597-492 in a matchup of high-powered offenses and their defense scored on Matt Puserati's 35-yard interception return in the fourth quarter.

Louisville quarterback Stefan LeFors was 17-of-26 for 224 yards but was intercepted three times.

It's the first time a MAC team has produced a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard receiver (Martin Nance) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Cal Murray) in a season.

But the key was always Roethlisberger, a former high school receiver. Hoeppner said Roethlisberger and his parents came to his house a couple of weeks ago to discuss the decision.

They informed the other players on the eve of the game, not wanting them to find out when everybody else did.

''Ben wanted to do the right thing for the team,'' Hoeppner said. ''The thing that was always most important to him was to protect the team. He didn't want his teammates to find out after the game.''

Roethlisberger joined Leftwich and Pennington as the only MAC quarterbacks to reach 11,000 career yards in total offense. He finished up with 19 touchdowns and one interception in his last five games, then gave a typically humble assessment of his first-half performance in giving most of the credit to his teammates and coaches.

''Humble is definitely a good word for it,'' Nance said. ''That should be the title in front his name. He's making all the plays. It's just a matter of us finishing them. Obviously, he's a great quarterback.''