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Scott Ostler

THE ROSE BOWL : Trojans Kick the Last Chance to Pull It Out, for Peete's Sake

January 02, 1988|Scott Ostler

Is it possible to bronze a football player's shin? While he's still using it?

If so, let's get Rodney Peete over to the metal shop right away for the honors, because it was Rodney's left shin that saved the Granddaddy of Them All from extinction.

A snap from USC center John Katnik to quarterback Peete with 1:37 left in Friday's Rose Bowl game somehow got lost in the shuffle. The ball bounced off Peete's shin and squirted into Michigan State territory and enemy hands.

With that play, the Trojans died and the Rose Bowl lived.

OK, maybe that's a stretch, but the new year is only two days old. This is no time for negativity, even among USC fans.

If Peete grabs that snap and the Trojans go on to score and win the game, as they seemed destined to do, the Rose Bowl as a competitive concept would have gone the way of the U.S. dollar.

That would have been seven straight wins by the Pacific 10, six Rose Bowls in a row for USC and 11 in a row for Los Angeles universities. Next year, the Rose Bowl folks would have had to pay people to attend.

Worse, next year the Big Ten champion team might have gone to Disneyland and the big prime rib pigout, but skipped the football game. Enough is enough.

In terms of real competition, the Rose Bowl was becoming the Grand baddie of Them All. Now, for the Bowl itself and for the Big Ten, there is reason to live.

Rodney Peete's shin will go down as the goat of the game only to those who lack grander historical perspective.

This, of course, is little consolation to Rodney Peete. He played a terrible first half, as did his so-called receivers, but had a second-half you should only dream about--until the bungled snap.

He fired touchdown passes of 33 and 22 yards to Ken Henry in a grand Trojan comeback, and literally laughed in the faces of the nervous Spartan defenders.

OK, Rodney only smiled in their faces, but that's even more unnerving.

"It's uncanny," said Michigan State free safety Todd Krumm. "A few times, during a play, I looked in his eyes, you could see he was confident, in control. He smiled at me a couple times while he was calling signals, like, 'Yeah, I know what you guys are doing.' He proved to me he's gained a lot of confidence and composure I think he lacked the first game (USC's season-opening loss at Michigan State)."

This is poise: In the Rose Bowl, with your fans in the minority, after you and your team play the first half in a daze and trail, 14-3, you come out and hit your first five passes (one called back on a penalty), scramble for crucial gains, throw those two rainbow touchdown passes . . .

Then, driving smartly toward the Spartan goal line for the would-be winning score, you kick the ball and the game away.

What happened on that fateful screw-up?

"I think the ball might've slipped out of John's hands," Peete said. "It hit me on the shin. I never touched the ball with my hands. But it's nobody's fault, it's both of our faults. We work on that every day in practice, and it shouldn't happen in a game.

"I went up to him (Katnik) and said 'No problem.' You can't blame him, he was keeping guys off me all day."

The knee-jerk reaction would be to blame Peete. He had fumbled an earlier snap by pulling away from Katnik too soon. In the season opener at Michigan State, Peete fumbled twice.

In fact, Peete's and USC's season was a microcosm of Los Angeles society. The Trojans arrived fashionably late for the season (stumbling at Michigan State), partied hardy, and left early to beat the traffic.

Very stylish. Very costly.

Peete, who vaulted himself into 1988 Heisman Trophy contention with his brilliant performance against UCLA, lost votes in the first half Friday, but more than made up ground in the second half.

"I was forcing the ball, and it cost us two interceptions," Peete said of his two first-half pickoffs, both thrown directly to Spartan defenders. "I probably should have dumped the ball off to the running backs . . . It definitely wasn't my best game. I had a terrible first half. The second half I did much better."

"I don't think we ran the ball as much as we should've in the first half. We were too one-dimensional. Their defensive linemen would be yelling 'pass' before the ball was snapped."

But in the end, Peete and the Trojans seemed to be riding the winds of destiny as they sailed to the Spartan 30. How's that for New Year's poetry?

"The confidence level in the huddle was just so high," Peete said. "It was very emotional. There was no doubt in anyone's mind we were gonna go down and score. Everybody was talking it up in the huddle."

Then came the play.

"It's kind of an ugly feeling in your stomach when you lose in the Rose Bowl," Peete said. "We had all those guys on the sidelines from the 70s--Vince Evans, Anthony Davis, Charlie White, Clarence Davis, Rod Martin--and you want to uphold that tradition."

Maybe the Trojans were out-celebritied. Not in numbers, but Michigan State had Magic Johnson on its side. Magic, the Spartans' version of Laker fan Jack Nicholson, was in the stands rooting his boys home. And you know how Magic's teams tend to do in Los Angeles. It was winnin' time.

For Peete and the Trojans, it was shin-n' time.

A tough way to wind up a hero-type season. Peete, who has almost as much personality and poise as Magic, led the Trojans to respectability and, almost, glory.

Almost.

"I'll have kind of a sick feeling for several months," Peete said. "It'll bother me. Unfortunately we don't play a game next week. I'll have seven months to remember."

Baseball starts in a week for Trojan shortstop Peete, so that will help him forget.

And if it's any consolation, Rodney Peete's left shin cost the Trojans a football game but may have saved a Granddaddy.

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