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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / WEEK 8

A Local Anesthetic

Trojans: Oregon's Harrington picks apart secondary for 382 yards and Ducks hand USC its third consecutive loss.

October 15, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The quarterback looked dazed, sitting before his locker, struggling to answer questions from reporters.

"I don't really remember," Carson Palmer said, trying to recall exactly what went wrong. "We just sort of missed some opportunities."

It has been that kind of season for USC, a comedy of errors, a series of shortcomings, and it continued Saturday with a 28-17 loss to ninth-ranked Oregon at the Coliseum.

The Trojans lost their third consecutive game even though tailback Sultan McCullough revived the ground game, rushing for a career-high 152 yards. They lost even though the defense all but shut down Oregon's normally potent running attack.

These were the Trojans' primary goals, but they lost because they could not curtail their penchant for mistakes and, more importantly, they could not stop Oregon's normally average quarterback, Joey Harrington, who threw for 382 yards and four touchdowns.

"It's so frustrating," USC Coach Paul Hackett said. "You do so many things right and get no reward."

Instead, USC has slipped to 3-3, any hopes of a Rose Bowl berth long gone. The team is 0-3 in conference and has lost to Oregon and Oregon State for the first time since 1957.

"I never thought the season would be where it's at right now," linebacker Zeke Moreno said.

The latest disappointment came on a day that began with promise. Looking for a spark, the Trojans won the coin flip and elected to receive, the first time they have started a game that way this season.

And it worked.

On the fourth play from scrimmage, McCullough cut back and broke into the clear at midfield. Who should appear but Palmer, hustling to block the only remaining defender.

The 59-yard touchdown run gave the Trojans their first lead in literally weeks.

The running game, gone dormant, had come alive. So had the crowd of 54,031.

But then came Harrington.

Though the junior quarterback had completed only 47% of his passes so far this season, he looked across the line and saw a chance to improve on those statistics because the Trojans were obviously more interested in stopping his tailback, Maurice Morris.

"There were eight men in the box keying on Maurice," he said. "We really weren't expecting that."

While Morris struggled--he would finish with a pedestrian 85 yards in 32 carries--Harrington completed 12 of his first 14 passes.

Time and again, he found his receivers open on out patterns, the USC secondary playing with too large a cushion. He dumped an eight-yard shovel pass to Morris to tie the score, 7-7. He threw 23 yards to fullback Josh Line to give his team a 14-7 lead at the start of the second quarter.

"We just weren't clicking," USC secondary coach Dennis Thurman said. "We played the defenses we wanted to play, but we didn't play them well."

It wasn't only the coverage. Harrington was rarely pressured.

"I had all day to throw back there," he said.

Meanwhile, Palmer went cold for much of the second and third quarters, at one point completing only two of 15 passes and throwing an interception late in the first half.

Maybe his performance--he completed 15 of 35 passes for 194 yards--could be blamed on a sore shoulder that limited his practice time this week. His top receiver, Kareem Kelly, had not practiced at all.

"We were missing our open shots," Kelly said. "I was open, but I was being overthrown."

Still, USC had a chance to win this game, even after a fumbled punt return led to Harrington's third touchdown pass of the day and a 21-7 Oregon lead early in the third quarter.

The Trojans began a comeback on the very next series, Palmer heating up, connecting with Kelly for a 32-yard gain that took the ball inside the Oregon 10-yard line. Two runs and an incomplete pass led to a 25-yard John Wall field goal, closing the gap to 21-10.

Then tailback Malaefou MacKenzie ran 34 yards up the middle, setting up Palmer's seven-yard touchdown pass to tight end Antoine Harris. The score was 21-17. And when safety Troy Polamalu intercepted a pass, USC drove to midfield.

But that was where the game went south on the Trojans.

They blew a third-and-one play when half the team ran right and the other half headed left. Palmer took the blame for making the wrong call in the huddle.

It was fourth and two with 6:29 remaining and McCullough wanted to try for the first down. So did his linemen, who were having their best day in weeks.

"The boys were ready to go for it," tackle Faaesea Mailo said "But we trust our coaches."

Hackett chose to punt the ball, eliciting a chorus of boos from the stands.

The Trojans paid for the decision. On a third-down play deep in Oregon territory, the defense left receiver Marshaun Tucker wide open for a 38-yard gain down the right sideline.

"What happened on that play?" Moreno asked one of his teammates after the game.

Safety DeShaun Hill shook his head.

"Somebody didn't cover their man," he said.

Oregon did not score on that drive, but the Ducks gained enough yardage so that a punt pinned USC near its end zone. A sack and a few incomplete passes later, the Trojans gave the ball back on downs.

Harrington responded by putting the game away, throwing 18 yards to tight end Justin Peelle. Ironically, the touchdown pass came on a fourth-and-three play.

"It was a great call by our coaches and it was great execution," Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti said. "Sometimes you have to take some chances."

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