A Fresh Start Under Palmer
USC Coach Paul Hackett grew so irritated at being asked all season when Carson Palmer would start at quarterback, he finally said he’d wear a clown outfit the day Palmer did.
Guess who was Bozo for Halloween?
The move USC fans have been clamoring for was finally made Saturday.
Palmer became only the second true freshman to start at quarterback for the Trojans, and passed for 279 yards in a 33-10 victory over Washington at the Coliseum in which former starter Mike Van Raaphorst didn’t play.
It was a game that ended with Trojan cornerback Antuan Simmons sprinting 90 yards for a touchdown after time expired--Simmons’ second interception return for a touchdown of the game--and was marked by tailback Chad Morton’s fourth 100-yard game.
But it will be remembered as the day Hackett handed the team to Palmer, an 18-year-old kid with golden hair to match his arm.
“I don’t think I could have started the first game. I wasn’t ready,” Palmer said. “I’m sure people questioned it, but I don’t think I was ready until this week.”
And with the victory in hand, Hackett walked into a room waving a bag holding a clownish wig--a faint apology after a week of lies and evasions as he tried to keep Palmer’s start a secret from Washington coaches.
“I’m not going to put it on, but I did bring it,” he said.
Not that Washington was too surprised, after Palmer played more than half the last two games.
“We went in knowing both quarterbacks would get a shot. We know Carson Palmer is their quarterback of the future,” Coach Jim Lambright said.
Until Saturday, the only true freshman to start at quarterback for USC in 106 seasons was Rob Johnson in 1991. But Hackett made it clear Palmer is his quarterback now, and although Van Raaphorst might play some, there is no more quarterback platoon.
“Mike had eight starts. I told him I felt Carson deserved an opportunity to show what kind of leader he can be and what kind of a football player he is,” Hackett said.
Palmer gave people an inkling, completing 18 of 31 passes, including a 57-yard scoring pass to Billy Miller and a 56-yard pass play to Windrell Hayes. His 279 yards were the most by a USC quarterback since John Fox--now the third-stringer--passed for 355 against Nevada Las Vegas last season.
Sacked four times by Washington’s all-out blitzes, Palmer also tucked the ball in and ran when needed--including a 26-yard run on third-and-four on the third play of the game.
“His presence out there, I was delighted with that,” Hackett said. “How he handled himself was what I was most pleased with--even when he just got murdered on the sideline, hit by a linebacker that must weigh 100 pounds more. He popped up with his helmet sideways, looking at me.”
USC (6-3 overall, 4-2 in the Pacific 10) won handily in the end, but it wasn’t a laugher until late.
The Trojans led, 14-0, at halftime after Miller’s touchdown and a 10-yard run by Morton set up by a 50-yard run by Morton to the Washington 19-yard line.
But there were too many Trojan mistakes--two more missed field goals by Adam Abrams and a fumble by receiver Mike Bastianelli among them--and it caught up to them.
Washington (5-3, 3-2) cut that lead to 14-10 with 1:28 left in the third on Joe Jarzynka’s 34-yard field goal and Chris Juergens’ 23-yard touchdown catch from Brock Huard, who attempted a remarkable 62 passes, completing 33 for 301 yards with four interceptions.
One of them was very big--a pickoff by USC safety Grant Pearsall at the Washington 34 early in the fourth that helped thwart the comeback.
It put USC in good field position for a drive that ended in Petros Papadakis’ one-yard run for a 20-10 lead with 11:48 left.
USC’s extra point--an attempt by backup David Bell--was blocked. It was only the latest snafu in the kicking game.
“We’ve got ourselves a major problem with the field-goal situation, let’s quit beating around the bush,” Hackett said.
Abrams, who missed three field goals in the loss to Oregon last week, missed from 41 and 26 yards against Washington, and combined with three misses against San Diego State, has three disastrous outings.
Other than that, he has been fine.
With that kind of problem, Hackett said Bastianelli, a receiver who was a kicker in high school, will start practicing at kicker this week.
“I told Adam, ‘You’re done for the game,’ and then David kicked one into the right guard’s rear, and we went back to Adam,” Hackett said. “Not acceptable. We’ve got to find a new approach.”
The big new approach--Palmer at quarterback--was to the liking of a homecoming crowd of 62,276 at the Coliseum, and to the Trojan players, although they empathize with Van Raaphorst.
“Like I always say, I have confidence in either quarterback, but he’s definitely the crowd’s favorite,” Miller said. “You can’t help but get a lot of motivation by the way they react to him.”
Morton, who rushed for 110 yards in 13 carries, was mostly happy with the results.
“You know, I don’t think it makes any difference. We don’t like one guy better than the other.”
They just like winning, and only a few players in the locker room had beaten Washington before, with USC on a three-game winless streak before Saturday.
It also put USC within a victory of becoming eligible for a bowl by securing a seven-win season, necessary because the Trojans play 12 regular-season games. USC has three games left and 1-7 Stanford is next on the schedule.
“I like the way this team responded today,” Hackett said.