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Jim Murray

Peete Gives the Trojans Passing Grade

November 13, 1987|JIM MURRAY

The USC Trojans beating you with the pass is like--what? The New York Yankees beating you with the glove, Dempsey beating you with the jab, Tilden whacking you out with the lob.

Howard Jones must be choking on his oatmeal some place today. His teams never put the ball in the air except on kickoffs and points after, of which there were a lot when he coached. John Wayne must be embarrassed.

Trojans aren't supposed to trick you. They're supposed to run right over you like the German Army going through the Low Countries. No one ever calls USC an aerial circus. They call them the Thundering Herd. Their attack is about as subtle as a load of bricks. They come through the tunnel like a flood. They don't have plays like X-K-E-7 on a fly pattern, they call their plays Student Body Right.

They leave that la-de-da passing game to Stanford and the institutions that don't have the inexhaustible pipelines of talent they do, the schools that have to make do with a Glee Club Right.

USC's strategy was simple: Round up every all-state or top community college player in the area, put them in those blood-red uniforms, give them a football, point them at Notre Dame and say, "Kill!"

Well, something went a little wrong in the past few years. USC had some teams that ran at somebody--and bounced back. The team that gave the world the nickname, the Wild Bunch, became the Mild Bunch. Tailback U. became Fallback U. The Thundering Herd became the Wondering Herd.

So, how come they're still in the Rose Bowl race? How come they're still in the hunt without the brass-knuckle offense and the black-eye/nosebleed defenses of yore?

The reason is the unlikeliest Trojan of them all. Rodney Peete is a sunny, smiling young man, as cheerful as a Sunday at the beach. He's got a shortstop's arm, a St. Louis Cardinal's speed and he is the Trojans' horse this year of Our Lord when all the old formulas are missing.

Rodney threw five--count 'em--touchdown passes in last week's win over Stanford. That's a good season for most USC passers. Those were touchdowns Nos. 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17 this season. That's a good career for most USC passers.

Rodney Peete is more than a great passer. He's a great runner. He's probably the only guy in the collegiate game today who could throw and catch the same pass. In high school, he passed for 16 touchdowns one year and ran for 9.

The 1987 Trojans, significantly, have run for 98 first downs. But they have passed for 107. They have gained 1,866 yards on the ground. And 2,183 in the air.

Peete is their third-leading rusher. He has scored 3 touchdowns rushing, leaving him with responsibility for 20 of the 36 touchdowns the team has made.

"It's like having John Unitas and O. J. Simpson in the same backfield," a Pac-10 coach once remarked.

"It's like having them in the same body," a colleague corrected.

So, Rodney Peete is Student Body Right, the Thundering Herd of One. Without him, USC is Stanford.

USC got Rodney Peete for an old, worn-out reason. Dozens of schools were after him, but when the conversation got round to wages, hours and working conditions, recruiters brought up the old tiresome business about making him a flanker, a wide receiver, a cornerback, a running back. They wanted him for a "black" position. (There are 16 black quarterbacks on major college teams this year, including, up to the time Jamelle Holieway was injured, the quarterbacks on the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country).

Rodney Peete didn't want to catch passes, he wanted to throw them. When he turns pro, he may not even do that. A .304 hitter in baseball, a shortstop with Ozzie Smith range, Rodney Peete does not even play spring football. He's a baseball prospect, too. He has already been drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays.

You can always tell Rodney Peete without his number, 16, because he'll be the one smiling. Big time football isn't fun to a lot of players but it is to Rodney.

"Oh, yeah, I enjoy it out there," he says. "I like it like Saturday, when the defense is real aggressive. I enjoy fooling people."

Although most of his 17 completions--out of 20 attempts--Saturday were off option or play-action passes, defenses cannot be sure what Peete will do from a straight drop-back.

Before the era of the specialist, college football used to revel in the presence of what the press called the triple-threat man. Rodney Peete is a double-threat man--he did get off one punt once, for 32 yards. There aren't many of those left either.

Only a junior, it's difficult to picture how he can be left off the Heisman Trophy--next year, if not this.

"I didn't come to SC to win the Heisman, I came to SC to win the Rose Bowl," says Rodney Peete.

Of course, he smiles when he says it. Of course, he smiles when he says anything.

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