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Henry Finally Gets the Spotlight at USC With a Helmet Trick

September 14, 1986|MIKE DOWNEY | Times Staff Writer

The last few years have not been all that kind to Ken Henry of USC.

The last few years have been kind of rotten for Keith Taylor of Illinois.

Things seem to be getting better for Henry.

Things seem to be getting worse for Taylor.

Henry, a 6-foot 3-inch, 195-pound wide receiver from Fresno, caught two touchdown passes for the Trojans in Saturday's season-opening 31-16 victory over visiting Illinois.

The four passes he grabbed in the game were as many as Henry had grabbed in the four years since he played high school football.

Taylor, a 6-foot, 185-pound cornerback from Pennsauken, N.J., was supposed to keep Henry from catching the ball.

He was happy to be making his first visit to the West Coast since the 1984 Rose Bowl and was eager to atone for the many mistakes he made in that 45-9 disaster against UCLA.

But with 44 seconds remaining in the first half and with his team ahead in the game, 9-7, the Illini defensive back found himself leaping for a floater from USC quarterback Rodney Peete at the goal line, with Henry right beside him.

Bonk.

"It hit him in the helmet," Henry said. "It just popped up in the air, and I grabbed it. I didn't even know it was a touchdown. I didn't even think I was still in bounds."

Oh, Henry. He toppled onto the end zone flag for a 26-yard touchdown, a real heads-up play.

Things looked up even more for Henry in the third quarter, when flanker Randy Tanner flipped him a 30-yard touchdown pass after a reverse.

"We work on that one at least twice a day," Henry said.

What made this one feel so good was the fact that it came in a game. Until now, Henry hasn't had much chance to show his stuff outside of practice.

At Edison High in Fresno, where his quarterback was USC's All-American safety, Tim McDonald, Henry did as much work with his hands as, well, Edison. As a senior in 1982, he caught 64 balls for 1,118 yards and 13 touchdowns.

At USC, he hoped to become another Lynn Swann.

But he redshirted in 1983. He played five minutes in 1984. He missed four games with a pulled hamstring in 1985 and went the entire regular season without making a catch.

Not until the Aloha Bowl in Hawaii, when Coach Ted Tollner gave him his first start, did Henry catch a ball in a game. He caught four, in fact. On the Mainland, though, he was still 0-for-USC.

"I'm going to try to make up for lost time," Henry said Saturday.

Peete is going to help him do just that. "They (the Illini) were playing Ken Henry man-to-man, and anytime Ken Henry gets another man by himself, I'm going to throw him the ball," Peete promised.

Because . . . ? "Because for one thing, Ken Henry's got a vertical jump of 37 inches, and for another thing, he's got great timing," Peete said. "If I put the ball up there, he's going to come down with it."

As for the poor man who went man-to-man with him, well, about the only thing Taylor has come down with in the last couple of years has been a bad case of bad luck.

Taylor could be forgiven if he never went on the road for the Illini again. Nothing good has happened to him on the road since the team left the prairie for the 1984 Rose Bowl.

In that game, UCLA's passing attack spun Taylor like a weather vane, picking on the poor freshman all day long.

Taylor assumed he had better days ahead. But in June of that year, he and a teammate were heading back from Jersey to the Midwest on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and got into an accident. Taylor ended up in a neck brace and missed the entire season.

The following June, healed from that injury, Taylor was working a construction job with a road crew when a dump truck accidentally ran over him. He wound up with head and back injuries and a broken arm. Another season gone.

This June, Taylor was careful. And so were his teammates. They all refused to go anywhere near a vehicle that had Taylor in it during the month of June.

On Sept. 6, against Louisville, Taylor made his first start in three seasons. Everything was supposed to be back to normal in 1986.

But the ball that conked him on the helmet Saturday was the beginning of the end for Illinois, which never led again.

The Illini had gone into the game knowing that USC had a rugged backfield and a slippery quarterback. They doubted the Trojans had much of a passing attack.

And they were not exactly proven wrong, since Peete completed only 10 of 24 passes--none of them longer than that 26-yard, up-for-grabs ball to Henry.

Until that play turned the game around, Illinois had forced four USC turnovers and seemed to have the upper hand.

"We were really stopping ourselves out there," Peete said. "You can't do that and beat a good football team.

"I'm not saying Illinois is a good football team. But Baylor's going to be a lot better football team than the one we faced today, so we better be ready."

The Trojans will play Baylor Saturday at Waco, Tex.

That off-the-helmet play isn't likely to work twice.

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