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SPORTS WEEKEND

Palmer Can Use Time to Scrape Off the Rust

USC: Quarterback's worst performance was overshadowed by win over Penn State.

September 01, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sluggish footwork. Bad decisions and worse throws.

After several days of reviewing the film, was there anything Carson Palmer liked about the way he played in USC's 29-5 victory over Penn State in the Kickoff Classic Sunday?

"Not really," the Trojan quarterback said. "Every ball, I should have thrown a better ball."

It was, in Palmer's estimation, the worst outing of his career. Worse than anything he had imagined, even after sitting out much of last season because of a broken collarbone.

"I knew it was going to be tough because I'd been out so long," he said. "But I expected to play better."

Now comes the tricky part--having dissected his performance, Palmer must find some semblance of rhythm before No. 12 USC's next big test against No. 23 Colorado at the Coliseum Sept. 9.

That means the Trojans' marquee attraction has become the focus of another sort of attention at practice this week.

"There are little things," Coach Paul Hackett said. "We've got some work to do."

Several weeks ago, over lunch, Hackett reminded a group of reporters that in two seasons Palmer has only eight starts and 10 touchdowns against nine interceptions. Those statistics, he said, don't quite match the hyperbole that surrounds the redshirt sophomore.

Were his words ominous?

No, Hackett says. He believes his quarterback was simply rattled by the speed of play, and a few early hits, in his first game back. On a day when Palmer completed 10 of 20 passes for 87 yards, Hackett says four plays made the difference:

* On USC's first possession, receiver Marcell Allmond ran a comeback route and Palmer threw the ball too far inside. It was intercepted by Penn State cornerback Bhawoh Jue.

"Just a bad ball," Palmer said.

* In the second quarter, on fourth and 11 in Penn State territory, receiver Kareem Kelly ran a route to the sideline and Palmer appeared to hesitate. By the time the ball arrived, Kelly caught it out of bounds. The receiver took part of the blame.

"He could have thrown it sooner," Kelly said. "But I could have given him a better chance if I had leaned inside on my route and then cut back outside. I didn't really give him enough room to work with."

* In the third quarter, near midfield, Palmer underthrew a deep route to Allmond.

* With USC threatening to score at the start of the fourth quarter, he missed Keary Colbert as the freshman receiver sneaked along the back of the end zone. While USC coaches want Palmer to play it safe and avoid the kind of collision that injured him last season, Hackett wonders if his quarterback should have scrambled on that play.

"But you know," he said, "you can't ask for everything."

Palmer ranks the Kickoff Classic below his one-for-seven game against Oregon State in 1998, when he was a freshman, and below his two-for-10 outing against a ranked Florida State team that same season.

But Sunday's performance is easier to accept if only because USC found a way to win.

Several ways, in fact, which leaves Hackett to imagine the possibilities. Is his defensive front seven as fearsome as it looked against an overrated Penn State? Will his special teams build on a fast start?

Even more tantalizing, the coach envisions Palmer playing as well as he did at the start of 1999--completing 73% of his passes--in combination with a revamped offensive line that paved the way for 164 rushing yards against the Nittany Lions.

"If we can run the ball with Carson Palmer," Hackett said, "there's some exciting stuff ahead."

First, however, the quarterback must go back to basics, devoting himself to such fundamentals as footwork. The coaches might try to speed things up in practice to give him a better sense of game conditions.

Special attention will also be paid to throwing downfield. Hackett says he will put strategy on the back burner and simplify his game plan, allowing Palmer to start the Colorado game throwing the types of passes with which he feels most comfortable.

"The main issue is speed and tempo," Hackett said. And, "when he's got guys wide open, he's got to make some throws."

Don't expect Palmer to fret over Sunday's miscues. He isn't the type. The only thing that irks him is not being able to jump back into action right away.

"I wish we had a game this week," he said. "I've just got to wait."

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