How Can a Freshman Command So Much Attention?

Times Staff Writer

So Rodney Peete was standing there with his Pepsodent smile radiating even more brightly than the television lights, which happened to catch the remnants of cheerleader’s kiss planted smack on his cheek. And Peete was just loving every spotlighted minute of it.

It might have been the only time Saturday that USC’s freshman-turned-veteran quarterback was standing still. Good thing for the Trojans. Their 17-13 upset of UCLA in the Coliseum would not have been possible without Peete’s feet. All afternoon Peete rambled, scrambled and dashed to get the Trojans out of trouble.

UCLA Coach Terry Donahue on Peete: “Peete was a factor. His running kept USC alive with several key long runs. He has good speed and did a great job. He hung in there when he had to.”


What in the name of upperclassmen was a freshman, starting only his second game, doing winning the Big Game for USC? Mostly, he was running. It was Peete who not only scored the winning touchdown, but eluded UCLA’s front four for most of the game.

The key play in the winning drive was Peete’s scramble on third-and-11 on the Bruin 25-yard line. Peete looked over to the sideline and USC Coach Ted Tollner gave him the play--quarterback draw. Peete the Fleet then ran through the middle for an 11-yard gain and a first down. More importantly, the run kept the Trojan drive alive.

The Trojans moved to the Bruin one-yard line, but two successive handoffs to Ryan Knight failed to go anywhere. The next play was not only a gutsy call by Tollner, but also the moment of truth for the rookie quarterback.

“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I could lead the team to a touchdown in the last drive,” Peete said. “The last play was just a regular quarterback sneak. When I heard the play, my eyes lit up. Any time my number is called, I get excited. I knew that with our line, I wouldn’t be stopped. They get the credit.”

With USC’s tradition of stellar running backs, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if the Trojan quarterback would simply hand off and backpedal away from the action. That was then, this is now. Peete was in the thick of it all afternoon. So much so that he was nearly replaced by the person he replaced, Sean Salisbury. In the second quarter, Peete was hit in the head and became disoriented. Tollner wanted him to leave the game.

“He got dinged a little bit,” Tollner said. “He came over to me and said, ‘Let’s run some simple plays. I can’t remember much.’ I called the doctor over and he said his (Peete’s) eyes were OK and Rodney said he was OK so I kept him in. Then he went out and fumbled on the next series.”


The fumble came with three minutes left in the first half and the Trojans on UCLA’s 44-yard line.

“I was dizzy for a while, but it wore off,” Peete said. “I had a tough time being aware of the whole situation. Not so much the plays but the (defensive) reads. I wasn’t going to tell coach I wanted to come out. I wasn’t going to come out of this game.”

Good thing for the Trojans that Peete recovered, even if the Bruins never did. In fact, it was Peete’s ability to bounce back that impressed Tollner.

“Rodney Peete made some mistakes, but they were redshirt freshman mistakes,” Tollner said. “The thing I like best was his poise after those mistakes--they don’t shake him.”

Indeed, about the only thing that seemed to throw Peete off was the uncharacteristic mob scene in front of his locker after the game. “It’s never been like this before,” he said, smiling. “It’s great. This is the biggest game of the year and it’s my biggest game of my career. Great. This is by far the biggest athletic victory I’ve eve had in my life. This is the reason you come to USC--for the Notre Dame game and the UCLA game. To be able to sit here with this feeling after winning a game with the intensity of the one we just played is the reason I came to USC.”

With that, Peete started moving again, this time to the showers.