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Palmer Shoots Down Ducks

Quarterback throws for 448 yards and five touchdowns, USC offense rolls up 608 yards in 44-33 victory that keeps Trojans in the Rose Bowl hunt.

October 27, 2002|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

EUGENE, Ore. — It took Carson Palmer five tries and four frustrating trips here.

Along the way, he persevered through disastrous errors in judgment, an agonizing season-ending injury and borderline heroic performances that always fell just short.

On Saturday, Palmer finally completed -- and conquered -- his personal Oregon trail.

Palmer passed for a school-record 448 yards and tied a school record with five touchdown passes as No. 15 USC defeated No. 14 Oregon, 44-33, before a stunned sellout crowd of 56,754 at Autzen Stadium.

"I loved every second of it," said Palmer, a fifth-year senior who broke his collarbone in a loss to the Ducks in 1999. "There is nothing better than playing in this place and beating these guys."

Until Saturday, only sixth-year senior fullback Malaefou MacKenzie knew what it felt like to defeat the Ducks. The Trojans, making their fourth trip to Autzen Stadium in five years, defeated Oregon at the Coliseum in 1997 but had not won here since 1993. They also had not defeated a ranked Pacific 10 Conference opponent on the road since 1995.

USC ended the drought by overcoming a 19-14 halftime deficit with 30 unanswered points to register what might one day be considered a program-turning victory.

The Trojans were 3-5 at this point last season under first-year Coach Pete Carroll. Today, they are 6-2 overall, 4-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference and in the hunt for their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1995 season.

"It's a complete turnaround," senior nose tackle Bernard Riley said. "We just have to keep it going, stay on the winning streak and keep it rolling."

USC rolled up 608 yards against the Ducks with help from running back Justin Fargas, a fifth-year senior transfer from Michigan who traveled his own agonizing, injury-plagued journey into the Trojan backfield.

Carroll said he gave Fargas his first start based on "a gut feeling" and the way the team reacted to his touchdown run against Washington last week. Fargas made the most of the opportunity by rushing for a career-best 139 yards in 27 carries.

After Palmer connected with wide receiver Kareem Kelly on a 31-yard touchdown pass play that gave the Trojans the lead with 11:36 left in the third quarter, Fargas scored five minutes later on a 15-yard run. The play brought back memories of Student Body Right and put USC ahead, 27-19.

"This is the best day of my college career and the biggest victory I have ever been a part of," Fargas said.

USC's strong finish enabled the Trojans to erase two blown scoring opportunities from the Oregon five-yard line in the first half. Rasuli Webster intercepted a pass by Palmer in the end zone and the Ducks blocked a 22-yard field-goal attempt by Ryan Killeen.

Oregon (6-2, 2-2) took a 19-14 halftime lead on a 54-yard touchdown reception by Keenan Howry and four field goals by Jared Siegel. But the Ducks, who gave up a conference-record 536 passing yards in a loss to Arizona State last week, were overwhelmed in the second half and suffered consecutive home defeats for the first time since 1997.

In the final 30 minutes, USC's front seven shut down Oregon's conference-leading rushing attack, and linebacker Melvin Simmons and cornerback Darrell Rideaux intercepted passes as the front four pressured quarterback Jason Fife.

Oregon tailback Onterrio Smith, who was averaging a conference-leading 133.7 yards a game, finished with only 79 yards in 19 carries, the first time he was held to fewer than 100 yards this season.

"I would like to tell you that it was the greatest halftime adjustment ever made, but we just went back to work and believed that we could get it done," Carroll said.

The offense took care of the rest, controlling the ball for 20 minutes 36 seconds in the second half.

After Palmer's touchdown pass to Kelly and the touchdown run by Fargas, the Trojans scored again in the third quarter on a 16-yard reception by freshman wide receiver Mike Williams. In the fourth quarter, Palmer's eight-yard touchdown pass to MacKenzie and a 48-yard field goal by Killeen put the Trojans ahead, 44-19.

Oregon scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes against reserves to make the score respectable, but it was by all measures a rout.

"The feeling in the locker room [at halftime] was that we were going to blow it out -- we knew we had the win," said Palmer, who also set a school record with 434 yards of total offense. "We just needed to keep doing our stuff, keep trusting the offense and running the plays. They were going to break and they did."

Try as they might, the Ducks could not break Palmer. He completed 14 of 18 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns in the first half and 17 of 24 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns in the second.

Palmer passed to a corps of receivers that chafed all season at the sight of a huge billboard in downtown Los Angeles that features three Oregon receivers.

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