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BATTLE FOR THE ROSE BOWL : UCLA vs. USC : THE QUARTERBACKS : Peete Talks a Pretty Good Game, but He Plays It Even Better as USC Record-Setter

November 19, 1987|MAL FLORENCE | Times Staff Writer

Rodney Peete is on a marathon course of interviews this week. He is asked to analyze USC's season, talk about Saturday's opponent, UCLA, and perhaps provide some insight into his personal nature.

After all, he is USC's quarterback, a high-profile athlete at a high-profile school.

As usual, Peete is accommodating, articulate and patient, smiling frequently as he answers the same questions time and again.

"The word charisma was demonstrated for me for the first time through Rodney," said Nancy Mazmanian, USC's assistant sports information director. "He just brightens up a room and knows how to make people happy."

Everyone is aware that Peete is a skilled, poised quarterback, who already holds seven school passing records and will pick up more soon, or as a senior next season.

When Peete is away from the spotlight, he is teasing the personnel in Heritage Hall, an affectionate sort who is touching or playfully bumping heads with people he feels comfortable with.

There is an openness about him, though, that is misleading. Part of Rodney Peete is not always shared with others.

"To some extent, he reminds me of Marcus Allen, although Rodney is more outgoing," Mazmanian said. "Both have the same carefully guarded nature. Rodney is a happy-go-lucky person, but he's also very self-protective of himself. He has to know you before he opens up to you."

Peete's personality has paved a smooth path for himself, even as a youngster when he was as competitive as he is now.

His mother, Edna, told Life magazine: "He always has been competitive--even in marbles when he was a little kid. We told him, 'Rodney, you can't win all the time.' Your friends will stop coming around. But he wouldn't give in, and his friends kept coming. He had a way of making them believe it was an accident that he won."

Mazmanian recalls that when Peete reported late for baseball practice in 1985 and then started at shortstop against UCLA, the other players could have resented him. Since it was Rodney, though, everything was OK.

Peete is on the verge of playing in the most important game of his college career, with the Rose Bowl at stake.

He led USC to a 17-13 upset victory over UCLA as a red-shirt freshman in 1985, scoring the winning touchdown on a one-yard sneak with 1 minute 13 seconds remaining.

Last year, he and his teammates sat stunned in the locker room at halftime as they trailed UCLA, 31-0, eventually losing, 45-20.

"It was a painful thing, sitting in that locker room at halftime," Peete said. "We can't help but think about it, how badly we got beat."

As for the 1985 game, Peete said: "That was probably the best feeling I've ever had in football."

Saturday's game at the Coliseum?

"I can hardly wait. I wish we could play the game now. It's fun being in a situation like this. It's the reason you come to USC, to play in these types of big games."

Even though USC beat Arizona, 12-10, last Saturday to qualify for a Rose Bowl showdown with UCLA, Peete had his worst game of the season. He completed only 7 of 20 passes and fumbled on a wild scramble that took USC out of field-goal range at a critical time of the game.

"I played like a freshman," Peete said. "I'll have to play 10 times better for us to be more productive on offense."

Peete said the Bruins will be the quickest team USC has played, even quicker than Arizona. He is also aware that USC will have to play its best game to win. The Trojans have had some uneven games recently, such as good offense and lagging defense against Stanford, and then vice versa against Arizona.

Overall, Peete has performed consistently, completing passes on the run or from the pocket, while also posing a threat on option plays.

He has completed 59.4% of his passes for 2,156 yards and 17 touchdowns, while throwing 8 interceptions. He has added another 101 yards as a runner and has been sacked only 6 times.

"Peete gives your defense four, or five different dimensions that you have to try to get a hold of," UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said. "He's a very elusive athlete. If you have a prototype drop-back, or roll-out passer, you can set up for one or another. Coupling that with the option, you've got your hands full. He's integral and crucial to their offense, as Troy Aikman is to ours."

There has been speculation that Peete and Aikman will be promoted as Heisman Trophy candidates next season by their respective schools.

"That's interesting," Peete said. "I didn't really come here thinking about winning the Heisman Trophy because for so long USC quarterbacks just pitched the ball to the tailbacks. I don't put a lot of stock in that, but it's nice if people would consider me for that award.

"Aikman is a great, great player. I've seen him play. He's got a good arm and he's a smart quarterback. He can beat you in a lot of ways. We'll have to keep him off the field."

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