EUGENE, Ore — This is not a bulletin, but it warrants repeating: USC quarterback Carson Palmer is an enigma, splicing highlight film passes with questionable decision-making. He's been doing it for three years and he did it Saturday night in USC's 24-22 loss against the No. 7 Oregon Ducks in the Pacific 10 Conference opener.
Palmer threw interceptions No. 2, 3, and 4 of the season before he even came close to throwing his first touchdown pass, which finally came with 6:12 left in the third quarter on a 75-yard catch-and-run by Sultan McCullough.
One of Palmer's interceptions was returned for a touchdown, while others could have been.
Then, just when you think you saw Palmer's career flash before his eyes, he shows why he was so highly recruited, throwing a 93-yard scoring pass to a wide open Kareem Kelly on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut the Oregon lead to 21-19.
Then, back to enigma, Palmer tripped on the two-point conversion attempt.
Then, it's Palmer leading the Trojans down field toward the go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter.
Back and forth it went until a 24-22 defeat.
You looked at the clock, and a game that pushed into late night, and deadline fast approaching, and wondered how Palmer would come out of it.
Would Palmer make good in the clutch, or make a play that cost the Trojans again?
Palmer's late fumble against Kansas State cost the Trojans a chance to win that game.
Saturday, he flirted with danger on many possessions. He got away with two big mistakes in the second quarter. First, he fumbled after a 17-yard scramble on third down, but the ball was recovered by a teammate.
On the next play, Palmer's out pass into triple coverage was intercepted by Steve Smith and returned 35 yards to the USC 29. But Palmer got bailed out when the Oregon drive stalled and Jared Siegel missed a 38-yard field-goal attempt.
Palmer wasn't always so fortunate.
With USC seizing momentum after stopping Oregon on fourth down late in the first half, Palmer's first down pass intended for Grant Mattos was intercepted by Smith and returned 33 yards for a touchdown to put the Ducks up, 14-6.
It was vintage Palmer--big play one minute, big mistake the next.
Palmer was expected to flourish under first-year offensive coordinator Norm Chow, but momentum has been slow in building. Palmer entered the season with 27 career interceptions and 26 touchdown passes, and he hadn't improved his ration in 2001.
Chow put Palmer in positions to succeed against the Ducks, spreading the field with four wide outs and having the Trojans operate from the no-huddle offense.
The difference between Palmer and Joey Harrington, Oregon's Heisman Trophy candidate, is that Harrington has proven himself in tough situations. In three seasons, Harrington has eight times rallied the Ducks from fourth-quarter deficits.
There had been no such Palmer legacy.
USC has no choice but to stick with Palmer through the good passes and bad.
The Trojans weren't likely to make a quarterback switch even if Saturday's game had turned ugly. The backups, Matt Cassel and Matt Leinart, have no experience.
This is Carson's show.
USC may have turned a corner Saturday night. It's too soon to suggest it's a wide sweep reminiscent of Student Body Left or Right, but it was a definite directional curl around end.
A top-notch effort against the nation's No. 7 team gives reason for hope.
Given the recent mood of the country, Saturday's game provided a raucous respite.
There was talk that the Oregon crowd might be subdued in the wake of a national mourning period that turned college football stadiums into cathedrals.
This joint was rocking from the moment they opened the gates and fans streamed to their seats.
The crowd was egged on by the comportment, or lack thereof, of the two competing teams, which engaged in a brief, but spirited, skirmish during warmups, somewhat belying the underlying theme underscored by a banner draped high above the stadium: United We Stand.
Later, the marching bands did join forces, without incident, to perform the national anthem in pregame ceremonies that honored those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks, but then it was back to the decibel-raising business.
Oregon had not been impressive in its two wins, narrowly escaping with a season-opening win against Wisconsin and laboring in victory against Utah, 24-10.
It seems some of the preseason hype had gotten to the Ducks. They rolled out a huge publicity campaign that included target advertising in selected cities.
They bought space on a Manhattan building to plaster a 100-foot poster of Harrington, posted a freeway billboard off the 405 of tailback Maurice Morris and another of cornerback Rashad Bauman in the Bay Area.
The Morris placement may not have been money well spent considering the senior had rushed for only 76 yards in 26 carries in the Ducks' first two wins, ceding playing time to a transfer from Tennessee named Onterrio Smith.
Morris ran more effectively Saturday.
It doesn't get easier for the Trojans, whose next four games are against Stanford, Washington, Arizona State and Notre Dame.