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No Question: The Job Is Palmer's

College football: Trojan sophomore quarterback will start against Bruins despite being benched in favor of Van Raaphorst in last game.

November 13, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So much for a quarterback controversy.

The mystery ended a day after Carson Palmer was benched at halftime against Washington State.

The question was answered less than 24 hours after USC backup Mike Van Raaphorst came off the sideline to throw three touchdown passes.

By Sunday afternoon, Coach Paul Hackett stood before his team and announced that Palmer would be back as the starter when USC plays UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

"Carson is our quarterback and you have got to rally around him," Hackett told his players.

It seems the sophomore held onto the job by means of a stronger arm and better mobility, if not by the sheer potential Hackett still sees in him, calling Palmer "our leader" and "the quarterback of the future."

Palmer had made no secret of his strong desire to return to the lineup, especially because he watched last season's game against the Bruins from the sideline with a broken collarbone.

"It's a big game," he said. "I haven't played in that game for two years."

Van Raaphorst, who got the news from his coach before the team meeting, said, "I'm not surprised by it at all."

A day earlier, the question of which quarterback would start seemed much more in doubt.

The USC offense sputtered for much of the first half against Washington State on Saturday, and Hackett was concerned that Palmer could not develop a rhythm. The quarterback missed on several long passes and, worse, threw his conference-leading 16th interception as USC fell behind, 12-0.

All season--through bouts of inconsistent quarterback play--Hackett had resisted making a switch but finally called on Van Raaphorst at halftime.

Palmer was not exactly happy--"I wanted to keep playing," he said--but handled the situation with aplomb, donning a headset as his backup started the third quarter.

The results were immediate, Van Raaphorst leading the Trojans downfield, finishing the drive with a strike to Kareem Kelly for a 34-yard touchdown play.

"Mike came in with an extra spark," Kelly said.

By game's end, Van Raaphorst completed 17 of 28 passes for 234 yards, tossing three touchdown passes and no interceptions. The Trojans lost, 33-27, but it was a remarkably smooth performance for someone who had not thrown a pass in a game since November 1999.

"He threw the ball well and ran the team well," Hackett said. "Take away a couple of dropped passes, and it would have been even better."

But it was not good enough to win Van Raaphorst the starting job.

On Sunday, Hackett acknowledged that Palmer needed to improve--he has struggled with decision-making and deep throws--but said that the quarterback's benching against Washington State had been mostly a psychological ploy to spark an offense that came out flat.

As intriguing as a quarterback controversy might have been for fans and media, Hackett wanted to make a quick decision on his starter. After reviewing game film, he wasted no time informing the team, hoping to clear the air with such a big game looming.

"I just want everybody to know from the get-go where we stand and what we're doing," he said.

Van Raaphorst did not express any disappointment, saying he would prepare for Saturday's cross-town rivalry the same way he has prepared all season.

"I've tried to be ready all year," he said. "I'm just going to keep that attitude."

Perhaps the veteran picked up on a subtle change in his coach's stance. Over the past two months, especially after games when Palmer struggled, Hackett dismissed the suggestion that he might bench his starter.

Now he seems more open to the possibility.

"If I feel like a change will help us win," he said, "I'll make that change."

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