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SPORTS EXTRA / COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Victory Has Special Meaning

USC: Polamalu's blocked punt gives Trojans an early spark and makes his uncle/coach a happy man.

November 04, 2001|ERIC SONDHEIMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Troy Polamalu made his way into the Coliseum stands to fulfill the request of a young boy who wanted him to pose for a picture. He signed a jersey for another fan. He signed a game program. He signed a shirt.

It's not only USC fans who are appreciating the relentless effort that Polamalu puts in on each play.

"He's an incredible player," Coach Pete Carroll said. "He's got to be one of the elite players in college football. He's one of the best safeties I've ever coached, and that's saying a lot. He's making play after play."

Polamalu didn't score the winning touchdown in USC's 16-13 overtime victory over Oregon State on Saturday. That was delivered by quarterback Carson Palmer. But he blocked a punt that led to the Trojans' only touchdown in regulation, contributed a team-leading 11 tackles and served as an inspirational leader for the defense.

USC fans are noticing. He's becoming a favorite, and not only because his first name is Troy. "You're a hitting machine," a Trojan supporter shouted as Polamalu, the Pacific 10 Conference's leading tackler, jogged to the locker room.

About the only time Polamalu leaves the field is during kickoff returns and field goals. Special teams coach Kennedy Pola, Polamalu's uncle, won't let him take a break. "I'm hard on him," Pola said. "When I'm backed up and in a tight situation, I go to him."

Polamalu broke through the middle of Oregon State's punt formation to block a kick on the Beavers' opening possession, enabling Steve Stevenson to recover the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. At the end of the first half, he tackled Josh Hawkins on a punt return to leave the Beavers down, 7-3, at halftime.

If it seems Polamalu is trying to make his uncle happy, he is. Pola is the one who called former USC assistant Hue Jackson to insist the Trojans recruit Polamalu out of Douglas High in Winston, Ore. He had committed to Colorado, but Pola wanted him to become a Trojan.

"It's like a father-son relationship," Polamalu said. "I don't want to let him down at all. I come from a Samoan background. You have to come through for your father. It's nice to make him happy."

USC's special teams were fodder for jokes last season because of missed field goals and botched PATs.

But special-teams play was the difference Saturday. USC kicker David Davis made his eighth consecutive field goal, a 30-yarder in the third quarter. Oregon State kicker Ryan Cesca, an all-conference selection last season, missed field goals of 35 and 29 yards in the fourth quarter.

Polamalu, USC's junior strong safety, thrives on making big hits on special teams.

"Special teams is where true football is played," he said. "You run, you hit, you have to have attitude out there."

With curly black hair and a gentle, friendly disposition, Polamalu is transformed into an intense performer on the field.

He was even picking on Oregon State punter Carl Tobey on one punt, blocking him repeatedly until the whistle blew and not apologizing one bit.

It's the kind of attitude Carroll hopes rubs off on other Trojans.

"Every play he rises up and does something," linebacker Frank Strong said.

Afterward, Polamalu sat in front of his locker preparing to take off his uniform after another exhausting, exhilarating effort.

"My body is so beat, but I'm fine," he said. "It's fun playing football."

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