USC Makes a Late Run
The play is called “Fake 26 Boot” and it gives Carson Palmer, rolling to his left, the option of throwing to the tight end coming across the field. But on an afternoon when his offense had stuttered, getting nowhere near a touchdown, the USC quarterback had only one thing in mind.
“I just remember seeing that pylon at the goal line,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure I hit it.”
Palmer’s scrambling, diving four-yard run into the corner of the end zone gave USC a 16-13 overtime victory against Oregon State at the Coliseum on Saturday, the Trojans’ third win in four games, keeping alive their improbable hopes for a winning season.
Only a month removed from a four-game losing streak, USC now stands at 4-5 and the players weren’t afraid to take a peek into the future. They have a game at winless California next week before their annual showdown against UCLA.
“We want to get to UCLA week where we’re still alive for a bowl game,” defensive tackle Ryan Nielsen said. “Anything can happen in the UCLA game.”
For all the celebrating that went on--the cheers of 44,880 in attendance, the dogpile on Palmer in the end zone, Coach Pete Carroll chest-thumping his players in the locker room--this was a game USC seemed unlikely to win. Oregon State, now 3-5, outgained the Trojans, 384 yards to 204. Twice, the Beavers had chances to take the lead in the closing moments only to watch Ryan Cesca, an all-conference kicker last season, miss field-goal attempts of 35 and 29 yards.
“This was a very disappointing loss,” Oregon State Coach Dennis Erickson said. “We felt we had opportunities in the second half, but our kicking game let us down.”
And for all the heroics associated with Palmer’s bootleg, it was USC’s defense and special teams that carried the day.
It was the defense that pushed the Beavers five yards back on their first possession, forcing them to punt from the end zone. The punt return team then overloaded one side of the line, which meant the Oregon State center had to block the smaller, speedier USC safety Troy Polamalu. As Polamalu later explained: “He just didn’t get there.”
Polamalu sprinted up the middle to smother the punt. Steve Stevenson recovered for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead barely five minutes into the game. Other than a short field goal by kicker David Davis, it was the only excitement USC could generate until overtime.
In between, Oregon State found ways to move the ball. Receiver James Newson got open in the secondary for a 33-yard gain that led to a field goal and a 7-3 score in the second quarter. Then, the Beavers turned to freshman tailback Steven Jackson.
All week long, USC had prepared for Ken Simonton, the three-time 1,000-yard rusher, and his backup, Patrick McCall, both of whom are relatively small and fast. The 217-pound Jackson, a bruising runner out of Las Vegas, was a mystery man.
“He didn’t show up on any of the films,” middle linebacker Mike Pollard said. “We didn’t realize how good he was.”
Midway through the third quarter, Jackson took control of the game. With his team backed up near its own end zone, he broke an 18-yard run to start a 96-yard drive. On his way to gaining 119 yards, Jackson pretty much carried his team the rest of the way, ultimately catching a four-yard touchdown pass to make the score 10-10.
The USC offense could not answer, tailback Sunny Byrd getting stopped for losses, Palmer on his way to getting sacked a bone-jarring six times. It was up to the defense to hang on.
Oregon State’s first chance to win came with six minutes remaining, when Cesca pushed the ball wide left. The Beavers drove right back down the field and again were poised to score with :33 left. Again, it was Polamalu making the big play, blitzing around left end and catching Jackson for a two-yard loss.
The ensuing kick went well right.
“It came down to our red-zone offense,” Oregon State quarterback Jonathan Smith said. “We had a good plan, but we just had trouble punching the ball in the end zone.”
Those troubles would continue into overtime. When the Beavers drove within three yards of the end zone, the USC defensive line ran a stunt and Nielsen broke free, sacking Smith for a nine-yard loss. This time, Cesca kicked a 29-yarder for a 13-10 lead, but the table was set for USC’s possession.
After nearly two decades in the NFL, Carroll had never experienced college football’s overtime. But he started talking about it with his assistants last spring and, at the time, they decided that running the ball would be best. On Saturday, even with the ground game stuck at 17 yards over four quarters, they decided to stick to their plan.
The coaching staff screamed at the offensive line on the bench, and those linemen knew this would be a chance to redeem themselves.
“We’d let the defense down so many times,” center Lenny Vandermade said. “We couldn’t squander another opportunity.”
First, Byrd pounded out a first down on two runs. Then came Palmer’s turn.
The junior completed 21 of 28 passes on the day, but that statistic was deceiving, many of his throws going for short gains. He guided his team to only 11 first downs. Yet, on third down in overtime, he completed a nine-yard pass to tight end Alex Holmes to keep the drive alive.
One play later, the coaches called a bootleg.
After faking the handoff, Palmer turned to see cornerback Terrell Roberts bearing down but was able to run through that tackle. Then his sights turned to the orange pylon at the corner of the end zone. He dived past linebacker Nick Barnett for the touchdown.
Palmer said later that he never considered passing.
“Being the quarterback, you want the ball in your hands,” he said. “You’re expected to win the game.”