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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / WEEK 13 | BILL PLASCHKE

Oh, so That's Carson Palmer

November 19, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

Bits of Rose Bowl grass hanging from his shirt, pieces of UCLA stuck to his shoes, and not a monkey in sight, Carson Palmer scrambled downfield looking for someone to hug.

He grabbed Ifeanyi Ohalete, a Trojan safety on crutches.

"We did this for you seniors!" he shouted.

He grabbed Sid Brooks, Trojan equipment director.

"We did for this everyone!" he yelled.

He grabbed tight end Antoine Harris, who lifted him into the chilly night.

"You're breaking my back!" he hollered.

The leader of Saturday's parade then appropriately found himself in the middle of one, the blaring USC band marching past him in celebration of the Trojans' 38-35 victory over UCLA.

He turned and began loudly slapping five with the saxophone players, the trumpeters, the drummers.

His music. His night.

"The game of my life," he said, not quite accurately.

It was the first game of the rest of his life. It was an awakening complete with wide eyes and tears.

When the clock hit zero and Carson Palmer skipped through the celebrating mob, it only looked like an ending. It was, in fact, a beginning.

Three years and 25 interceptions later than we anticipated, but a beginning nonetheless.

The kid who was supposed to be a Heisman candidate by now, but instead has mostly looked as stiff and bronze as that statue?

You know, the kid can wing it.

He had more passing yards (350) than UCLA's total yards (328), only 11 misses among 37 passes, nearly half as many touchdown passes (four) as in his previous games combined this season.

"In big games, the big-time players show up," Harris said. "Today Carson showed up. He proved to everyone that he is one of those players."

The kid can also hoof it.

His 35-yard bootleg run led to USC's second touchdown. His 16-yard swerving run up the middle on third down helped keep UCLA's offense off the field in the fourth quarter.

"Carson came in here with everything stuck to his back, with all the pressure," said receiver Steve Stevenson. "But he found his rhythm. He came through big."

And the kid can lead.

Palmer showed this more than anything Saturday. Confusion became coolness. A season's worth of raised eyebrows shrunk into one 3 1/2-hour glare.

"Today he exuded an air of confidence in everything he did," said receiver Matt Nickels. "When that happens . . . he is one of the best quarterbacks in the country."

Not to mention, the most redeemed.

"I feel like I've had something to prove all year, I know I haven't lived up to expectations," he said. "I hope this made people happy."

That aura described by Nickels appeared early. In fact, it was last Saturday, after Palmer was so bad in a loss to Washington State, he was replaced by Mike Van Raaphorst.

Palmer could have pouted or whined at the time. Instead, he said that if coaches thought it would help USC win this week, he would accept another benching.

"I felt that Mike could do just as well out there," he said.

Perhaps that maturity was enough to convince Coach Paul Hackett that Palmer was indeed ready for UCLA.

But that maturity was tested again about 10 blinks into the game. Two dumb penalties on the opening kickoff pushed the Trojans to the edge of their end zone. Chad Pierson's fumble was recovered by Marques Anderson for a Bruin touchdown.

One play, a 7-0 deficit, an entire career seemingly summed up in 20 seconds. Trojans kicked the ground and shook their heads. Palmer shrugged.

"Yeah, we were all mad, but Coach Hackett has taught us to hang in there no matter what," Palmer said. "I knew we just had to get back to work."

Work they did, with an ensuing 80-yard drive that included a 17-yard screen pass to Malaefou MacKenzie on third down and an eight-yard pass to Harris for a touchdown.

"Did you see how we came right back like that?" Hackett asked.

You mean, did we see how Carson Palmer came back like that?

Yes, we did. We saw him lead the Trojans in breathless climbs over four deficits.

We saw him drive the Bruin defenders into pass-interference penalties with pump fakes. We saw him twist their linebackers with scrambles.

We saw the prototype NFL quarterback that we once expected to see. That football experts in this town have been dying to see. That we thought we'd never see.

"This is what Carson is supposed to look like," Hackett said.

Finally, with the game bitten down to its last cuticle, with David Bell waiting on the field to attempt a 36-yard field goal that few honestly thought he would make, we saw Palmer complete his Joe Montana imitation.

You know, with a big-play joke.

"I told David, 'You can make this, it's easy, just put the ball through the pots, no big deal,' " Palmer said, smiling. "I was trying to be funny."

Bell made the kick. Palmer went on his search for an embrace. A city witnessed a dramatic growth spurt.

"Carson Palmer may have come of age today," Hackett said, pausing, remembering Notre Dame. "We'll find out next week."

For a once-uncertain prodigy, at least there is a next week, and perhaps plenty more after that.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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