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SPORTS EXTRA / COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Simmons Savors Shutout to Cap Comeback Year

USC: Cornerback who missed last season gives Trojans upper hand with interception return for a touchdown.

November 18, 2001|BEN BOLCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

USC cornerback Antuan Simmons was thrilled to receive the second UCLA game ball of his career after registering the defensive gem of the Trojans' first shutout victory over the Bruins in 54 years at the Coliseum on Saturday.

All things considered, nothing could surpass the meaning of more personal gestures--hugs and words of encouragement from friends and family--for a senior who battled back from the brink of death to make a spectacular play in his final game against his biggest rival.

Simmons' 36-yard interception return for a touchdown on the last play of the first quarter sparked the USC defense to its first shutout of the season in a 27-0 triumph.

"Isn't that something that in his last regular-season game, he would score a touchdown?" USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "It's storybook stuff--a guy who came back off his deathbed and shined against his rival."

Simmons, who almost died after undergoing surgery to remove an abdominal tumor that kept him out the 2000 season, put it this way: "You couldn't ask for anything better than to go out beating UCLA 27-0 and being part of the zero."

Simmons was one of many contributors on a Trojan defense that forced four turnovers and limited the Bruins to 28 yards rushing and 114 yards overall, though UCLA was playing without leading rusher DeShaun Foster.

Freshman defensive end Shaun Cody recorded a game-high eight tackles, sacked quarterback Cory Paus twice and recovered a fumble. Strong safety Troy Polamalu blocked a punt and intercepted a pass, and cornerback Kevin Arbet ended the Bruins' only legitimate scoring threat by intercepting a Scott McEwan pass at the USC two-yard line early in the fourth quarter.

But the crowning achievement was Simmons' interception that put USC ahead, 14-0, to end the first quarter. It was his ninth career interception and the third he returned for a score.

Simmons said he was about to tackle UCLA receiver Brian Poli-Dixon on the play when he saw Paus' pass deflect off one of the receiver's shoulder pads.

"I caught it with one hand, grabbed it with the other and took off," said Simmons, who drew an excessive celebration penalty after strutting out the back of the end zone. "It took a little fire out of them, I thought."

Carroll, who preached defense this week in practice, allowed his seniors to address the team before the game. Simmons, an inspirational figure, was the last to speak. And his teammates took his message to heart in a first half in which they limited UCLA to 23 yards.

USC defenders sensed something special when the Bruins still hadn't scored by the fourth quarter, Polamalu said, but tried not to jinx the shutout.

"It's kind of like a pitcher trying to throw a no-hitter," said Polamalu, who intercepted a pass late in the third quarter after the Bruins returned a kickoff to the 50. "You don't talk about it."

Carroll played the defensive starters to the end to preserve the shutout.

"It's not about winning because you've got the win," said Carroll, whose defense has been a big part of the Trojans' four-game winning streak. "It's about finishing it."

Cody said he couldn't envision shutting out UCLA until it happened.

"If you make plays and continue to make a roll of plays, it can happen," he said. "We played 60 minutes tonight."

Nobody was more exhausted than Simmons, who wore a weary smile in the locker room when he described the shutout as "the whipped cream" atop his final regular-season victory, It may not be his final victory, though.

After all, USC (6-5) is eligible to play in a bowl, thanks mostly to Simmons and its defense.

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