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The Inside Track | Xs AND O's / LONNIE WHITE

Short Game Could Go Long Way for Palmer

October 26, 2002|LONNIE WHITE

Statement games in October do not always make or break a football team's Rose Bowl hopes, but that might very well be the case today for USC, which will face Oregon in a Pacific 10 Conference showdown at Autzen Stadium in Eugene.

For the Trojans, who have lost four consecutive games to the Ducks and have not won at Oregon since 1993, the key to victory will be the play of senior quarterback Carson Palmer.

As a one-time harsh critic of Palmer, I've noticed a vast improvement in his game this season in leading the Trojans to a 5-2 record. In his second season under Coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow, Palmer has been steady in completing 164 of 272 passes for 1,981 yards and 13 touchdowns.

"Carson Palmer is playing like everyone thought he would," Oregon State Coach Dennis Erickson said before Palmer passed for 231 yards and two touchdowns against the Beavers this season. "He's such a talent. He's not making mistakes and has a great arm and is throwing it well."

Having a big target to throw to in freshman Mike Williams has definitely helped Palmer, who struggles when he's taken out of his comfort zone. By having Palmer better prepared for opponents each week, Chow has been able to get his quarterback to cut down on his mental mistakes.

Instead of looking to complete low-percentage bombs to shaky wideout Kareem Kelly, as he has done in years past, Palmer, who holds six USC passing and total-offense records, has done a better job of taking what defenses are giving him.

When Palmer has faced secondaries with two deep safeties, he has completed passes underneath. When defenses have crowded the line of scrimmage, Palmer has found receivers deep.

Last week in an impressive victory over Washington at the Coliseum, Palmer executed this simple attack to perfection in passing for 346 yards and four touchdowns.

At first glance, one would think Palmer should have a monster game against Oregon, which gave up 536 yards passing and four touchdowns to Arizona State's Andrew Walter in a 45-42 loss to the Sun Devils last week.

But as ESPN's Lee Corso says, "Not so fast my friend."

Palmer has previously come up short in big games on the road in front of hostile crowds, so maybe Trojan fans should wait a day before making New Year's Day plans for Pasadena.

Palmer's biggest challenge today might be keeping USC's offense from getting rattled by the Oregon crowd's noise.

The Ducks rely on creating a chaotic atmosphere for opponents in an attempt to cover up major holes in their defense. It will be up to Palmer to keep the Trojan offense calm and focused enough to take advantage of a weak secondary, which lost last season's dominant cornerback duo, Rashad Bauman and Steve Smith, to graduation.

The Ducks start three players in their secondary with Southland ties. Freshman cornerback Aaron Gipson is from Alta Loma, junior cornerback Steven Moore played at Dorsey High and senior strong safety Rasuli Webster is from Brea. They, along with safety Keith Lewis and backup defensive backs Charles Favroth and Marques Binns, make up a secondary that was exposed by the Sun Devils last week.

Oregon was able to take a 21-point lead in the first half by limiting Arizona State's big plays on first down. No matter the formation they faced, the Ducks played their cornerbacks off on first downs, often with a 10-yard cushion between them and the receivers.

Short passes on first down to USC wide receivers and tight ends should be there all day for Palmer, but he cannot afford to stare at his receivers, a bad habit of his. Gipson and Moore may not be the fastest players in the world, but they are quick and aggressive, and if Palmer tips his hand too early, or if USC's receivers run sloppy patterns, the cornerbacks will make them pay.

Against Arizona State, Oregon, which loves to blitz on running downs and use man coverage in the secondary, was hurt by play-action plays in the second half. Palmer should be able to exploit this ploy too, but he'll have to be sharper with his fakes.

In USC's first loss, at Kansas State, Palmer and the Trojan backs were sloppy on play-action plays and the Wildcats shut them down. Because Kansas State was never truly threatened with a run, the Wildcats were able to key on Palmer and make his night miserable as he completed only 18 of 47 passes for 186 yards.

Keary Colbert, Williams and Kelly are dangerous receivers when they have room to work, but they've had their problems when defensive backs play them physically. USC receivers dropped six passes against Kansas State, five of them after they were either bumped off their routes or hit on the catches.

Kansas State, and to some extent Washington State, which handed the Trojans their other defeat, were successful in jamming USC's receivers at the line of scrimmage. This tactic not only makes it more difficult for wideouts to get off the ball but the tight defensive coverage often disrupts Palmer's passing rhythm.

Expect the Ducks to copy that game plan today.

This all-or-nothing scheme, however, can be dangerous. That's why several Pac-10 receivers have had career games against the Ducks this season.

Arizona State's Shaun McDonald had 12 catches for 204 yards, Arizona's Bobby Wade caught 12 passes for 151 yards and UCLA's Craig Bragg snagged nine passes for 230 yards, all against Oregon.

And the Ducks' secondary gives up the yards in big chunks. Oregon has allowed touchdown passes of 55, 53, 71, 46, 67 and 48 yards over the last two weeks.

"In this conference, you've got to have quick feet and a short memory because you're going to get beat," Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti told the Oregonian earlier this week. "What matters is how you get up and the attitude you take about the next play ... or game."

And USC can only hope that the Ducks have to remind themselves of this again next week.

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