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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / WEEK 12

This Is the Type of Loss That Can Age a Guy

USC: Freshman Palmer says he'll remember this game next year. Bruins aren't impressed.

November 22, 1998|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

The UCLA-USC football game is no place for 18-year-old freshmen. Those who do best in this game tend to have at least one tattoo and shave twice a day. You can often tell the winning team by who has the most Harleys.

But there was Carson Palmer, blond hair, blue eyes, a little fuzz around his chin and not even 19 until two days after Christmas, thrown out there by USC to see how he might fare in front of the 88,080 who came to the Rose Bowl on Saturday to see the eighth consecutive Bruin bloodletting in this formerly competitive rivalry.

For Palmer, the pride of Santa Margarita High a year ago and now the future of the proud USC Trojans, it turned out to be one of those Christian and lion things. Only a USC home game would have been more fitting.

The statistics tell some of what it must have been like to be Palmer, fresh meat for the likes of Brendon Ayanbadejo, a 234-pound senior, who sacked Palmer four times for a total of 28 yards in losses and dismissed the USC youngster's performance afterward with a shrug and a verbal rip.

"I thought the guy was terrible," Ayanbadejo said. "We could have sent out one of our redshirt freshmen [to play quarterback] and he would have played better than him."

Or try this reaction from Bruin Larry Atkins, a 228-pound senior, who made one of the two interceptions against Palmer: "I don't know what his numbers were, but I didn't think he had the kind of game he had earlier in the season."

Interestingly, neither Ayanbadejo nor Atkins have to face Palmer again. They probably will be playing football on Sundays next fall, while Palmer has opportunities left in this USC-UCLA thing.

"I'll remember this," Palmer said. "I have three more shots at these guys. Remembering this will help a lot next year."

The reviews of Palmer's 28-of-43 passing performance that netted 252 yards and a touchdown were much more favorable on the Trojan side of the stadium.

"He's a man in an 18-year-old's body," said Mike Bastianelli, USC senior wide receiver. "There is just no way he quits on anything; no slowing down or crying from him.

"I'll tell you what. He's gonna beat these guys the next three years."

That assumes two things, of course: That UCLA stops producing 325-pound gutty little Bruins with sprinters' speed who bench-press 400 pounds and have hair growing out of their nostrils; also, that Palmer doesn't become so good that he, too, starts playing his football on Sundays before donning cap and gown.

Billy Miller, another senior USC receiver, agreed with Bastianelli's assessment of Palmer.

"All day long, he hung in there," Miller said. "He kept his poise, he took the hits and he kept on trying. What I think is that we lost the game, but that Carson Palmer played like a veteran."

Palmer actually looked more like an 18-year-old after the game than during it. The press, a different category of lions, surrounded him and got predictable quotes about his frustration and wish that his first experience in this important game had been a winning one.

"I thought we had a chance to win right up until six or seven minutes were left in the game," he said. "But UCLA is just too good. Their defense may not have been ranked that high, but it was a very good defense. And we just kept dropping the ball and giving them chance after chance. You can't win that way."

Just like he did during the game, Palmer hung in there until all the questioners had been satisfied. But, fittingly on this day, most of his answers, just like many of his offensive plays, were gobbled up by Bruins. This time, it was the UCLA marching band, doing its postgame concert about 20 feet down the hall.

For the youngest Trojan, it was that kind of day.

But he'll have others, and don't be surprised if he shows up for the next one with four days growth and a picture of Motorcycle Mama on his arm.

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