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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / WEEK 8 | BILL PLASCHKE

Hackett Still Kicking but May Not Be Alive

October 15, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

The latest evidence in the case of the People vs. Paul Hackett was revealed Saturday, cold and shiny and sharp.

USC with the ball, fourth and two at midfield, midway through the fourth quarter, trailing Oregon by four points, Hackett sends in the punter.

The punter?

Boooooooo.

From every corner of the Coliseum it rained, like soot-colored confetti, covering the team, blanketing the momentum.

They booed from the T-shirt seats, from the cardinal golf-shirt seats, even from the shoulder-pad seats.

"I was screaming for us to go for it," running back Sultan McCullough said. "I felt that way. A lot of people felt that way."

Yet Hackett gently gave the ball back to the Ducks, who controlled it for nearly five of the last six minutes, and so much for USC's Rose Bowl future, their major bowl future . . . and a certain head coach's future?

Not so fast. Despite the apparent wishes of the Trojan nation, the 28-17 loss to Oregon was not a final verdict on anything other than Ducks and Beavers rule.

As for Hackett, despite three consecutive losses and only three wins in his last 12 Pac-10 games and yet another afternoon of questionable defeats and confusion, get one thing straight.

Calling for his head is like walking outside in these MTA-troubled times calling for a bus.

It's not happening yet, and you'll gain only a scratchy throat by trying.

Hackett still has plenty of rope, in the form of four consecutive games against unranked teams followed by the annual Forgiveness Bowls against UCLA and Notre Dame.

There is also the matter of whether Mike Garrett has the legs to run a misdirection play freeing himself from the most important hire of his eight-year tenure as athletic director. And if he can't, is he also willing to take the fall?

Then, of course, there is the issue of how distasteful Steven Sample, university president, finds this entire can-the-coach yodeling during a time when the university is gaining nationwide recognition for academics.

Sample surely does not want another John Robinson debacle--mud pies everywhere--and could avoiding that be worth allowing Hackett to finish the final two years of his contract?

If it were only as simple as booooo.

On a day when downtown law offices gleamed in the distance, one could affirm only that the arguments against Hackett mounted.

There was the fourth-down play with 6:29 remaining in the game, which Hackett later admitted he may have botched.

"If I had to do it again, I'd probably go for it," he said, noting that he was caught up in the frustration over the previous play.

That would be a third-and-one blunder in which Carson Palmer ordered Petros Papadakis to run the wrong direction. Papadakis lost a yard, and Hackett essentially threw up his hands.

"We went right instead of left and I said, 'Uh-oh, let's just punt,' " Hackett said. "I felt we could pin them back there and hold them on defense and have time to score. I felt we could win the game. I knew we could win the game."

This is a coach with faith. This is a coach with honesty.

This is also, however, a former NFL offensive coordinator who is not doing so well as a college professor.

The entire midfield sequence may have changed if Hackett had not not made another questionable decision about six minutes earlier, after Palmer's seven-yard touchdown pass to Antoine Harris had closed the gap to 21-16.

If the Trojans converted a two-point conversion there, they could have later tied the score with a field goal.

If they kicked for one point, they would still need a touchdown . . . the same as if they had gone for the two points and failed.

Hackett kicked for one point.

No risk, no reward, and a field that looked twice as long from where Palmer was standing.

"I had the play all ready to send in," Hackett said of the two-point conversion. "But I looked at the charts, and they said that if it is late in the fourth quarter, you go for two points. But it was still early in the fourth quarter, and I thought we had plenty of time."

His team never seems to have enough time. They consistently play as if rushed, similar to all those fans who again left the game early, turning a crowd of 54,031 into several thousand booing--and in one case bottle-throwing--grumblers.

His team also never seems to be on the same page, which is football-speak for, they occasionally run around like decapitated poultry.

Shortly after the soon-to-be-infamous punt, the Trojans appeared to escape the controversy by forcing Oregon into a third-and-15 situation on its 12-yard line.

But Oregon's Marshaun Tucker ran apparently undetected from left to right in the backfield, then streaked down the sideline and caught a pass for 38 yards without anyone within spitting distance.

The first down allowed Oregon to hold the ball long enough, and pin the Trojans deep enough, that the Ducks' final touchdown on a fourth-down, run-out-the-clock play was wholly unnecessary.

"I can't stretch my imagination far enough to tell you how frustrated I am," Trojan receiver Kareem Kelly. "We're all just out of it."

The last time they seemed this "out of it," the year was 1997, and their head coach was soon out of a job.

Final arguments aren't scheduled for weeks. The case is still developing. The evidence piles up.

*

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

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