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THE GAME-SAVER : Peete Has a Big Play on Defense : He Chases, Catches UCLA's Eric Turner

November 22, 1987|BILL DWYRE | Times Sports Editor

Defense being something that other guys play while he rests on the bench, Rodney Peete of USC found himself in a rather strange position during the final seconds of the first half at the Coliseum Saturday.

Suddenly, a player for the other team had the ball. And Peete was still on the field. Peete is a quarterback. Many of his ilk in this situation would have motioned to the sideline for a red jersey. This is supposed to be a contact sport, but not for quarterbacks, unless they play for Oklahoma.

But Peete, being a pretty fair country athlete, decided to get in there and mix it up with the big boys, risking injury and shortness of breath.

The result of Peete's un-quarterback-like moment was simple. He saved the game for USC, which beat the sleepwalking Bruins, 17-13, with a big surge in the second half.

Peete had his team first and goal at UCLA's five-yard line. The Trojans, trailing 10-0, had just taken their final timeout of the half. Peete went back to pass, fired toward the left corner of the end zone, and the fun began.

Marcus Patton, a UCLA linebacker, tipped the pass. Eric Turner, a UCLA defensive back, dashed forward and intercepted it.

Suddenly, a game-breaking moment was at hand, with Turner streaking down the sidelines right in front of the USC bench. He even had a blocker or two in front of him, mowing down whatever was left wearing Cardinal colored jerseys in his path. It looked like 17-0 at the half and a somber trudge to the locker room for the underdog Trojans.

But, like a man wearing a cape and a Capital S on his jersey, Peete appeared, chasing Turner. A quarterback chasing a defensive back. Mr. Ed pursues Secretariat. A dachshund after a greyhound.

"I thought I was gonna go all the way," Turner said. "I saw the end zone. I had the daylight. I thought I was gone."

Turner, a freshman, was a trackman at Ventura High School. His specialty? The sprints. He ran the 100 and 440 relay. "I don't have blazing speed," he said, adding that his time in the 40 is 4.56 and his best in the 100 was 9.9. The last quarterback with that kind of speed was Joe Namath, in pursuit of a blonde.

But there was Peete, the quarterback, a guy who is supposed to throw and hand off and give speeches in the huddle and run in maximum spurts of 5 to 10 yards, giving chase. And, with a bit of an angle on Turner, closing.

"The only thing I thought about was that they couldn't get that touchdown," he said. "I didn't want us having to go into halftime with that big down feeling you get when something big like that happens right before the half.

"I just, somehow, knew I was going to catch him."

Catch him, indeed. At about the 15-yard line, Peete latched on. By the time they got to the nine, Turner was down. Tackled and out of bounds. An heroic moment for Turner had slipped away. His chance to bury USC was now nothing more than a nice spot on the highlight films.

Indeed, thwarted by a quarterback, an insult worse than injury. The Roadrunner, caught and pinned down by Wile E. Coyote. Beep-Beep.

"I saw it was Rodney all the way," Turner said. "I figured I'd just outrun him. That's where I made my mistake. I kept looking back at him. If I hadn't looked back, I think I would have made it."

Peete said: "I just knew I had to get him. And once I got there, I grabbed ahold of everything I could."

Including Turner's facemask, according to Turner.

"Yup, I got that, too," Peete laughed. "I'm glad the ref didn't see that. I'm not sure what would have happened then."

What would have happened was that, since a half can't end on a penalty, UCLA would have gotten the ball on the nine-yard line, with one more play, most likely a successful field goal that would have taken the Bruins into the locker room with a 13-0 lead, rather than 10-0.

So, the play was not only exciting, but ironic:

--There was a facemask penalty that wasn't called.

--The defensive hero was a quarterback who not only led his team to victory in the normal offensive ways, but also set team offensive records during the game for total offense for a season; passing yard for a season, completions for a season and took a share of the record for touchdown passes in a season.

But the final irony was when somebody mentioned the statistic that Turner's best 40-yard time was 4.56.

"Mine's 4.50," Peete said, thereby wiping out a generation of non-Oklahoma quarterback impressions that say they have to be big, tall right-handed shotguns with feet of clay.

Before long, the stat freaks will have a new category: GST-QB. Game-saving tackle, quarterback. Or, for short, they'll just call it RP. For Rodney Peete, of course.

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