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A Catch That Wasn't Was a Spark for USC

Kelly's phantom grab against Cal led to a comeback in the first game of what's now an 11-game win streak.

September 26, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Kareem Kelly finished his USC career last season as the Trojans' all-time reception leader, the record book showing that Kelly caught 204 passes.

But Kelly freely acknowledges that his most important catch wasn't a catch at all.

Last Oct. 12, with twice-beaten USC trailing California, 21-3, late in the first half, Kelly dived for quarterback Carson Palmer's short pass to the back of the end zone. The ball hit the Coliseum turf before Kelly cradled it into his arms. Much to the delight of USC -- and consternation of Cal -- an official trailing the play signaled touchdown.

After huddling with his crew beneath the stadium's video board -- which unbeknownst to officials showed a replay of Kelly landing on top of the ball -- the referee affirmed the call and signaled touchdown.

Three days later, the commissioner of the Pacific 10 Conference said officials made the wrong call.

By that time, USC was on its way to its best season in decades.

"That play right there was our whole season," Kelly said by phone Thursday after practicing with the Baltimore Ravens.

Palmer's flip against UCLA, Justin Fargas' breakaway touchdown in the Orange Bowl and any number of plays by receivers Mike Williams, Keary Colbert or linebacker Matt Grootegoed were more spectacular.

But Kelly's phantom touchdown chilled the Golden Bears and started USC on a run of 27 unanswered points. The Trojans won, 30-28, after recovering an onside kick by Cal with less than 30 seconds left.

USC has not looked back since.

The victory, coming after an overtime loss at Washington State, put USC on track for its first appearance in a bowl championship series game, kept Palmer on the Heisman Trophy radar and started what has become the nation's second-longest winning streak.

"There was somewhat of a turn there, of not having to look back anymore," USC Coach Pete Carroll said.

Third-ranked USC, which has defeated its last 10 opponents by an average of 23.6 points, will try to extend its winning streak to 12 games Saturday when the Trojans travel to Memorial Stadium in Berkeley for their Pac-10 opener against Cal.

Palmer, selected by the Cincinnati Bengals with the first pick in the NFL draft, said Kelly's touchdown against Cal was no different than favorable calls other teams received on their way to historic seasons and national championships.

"You have to get lucky every once in a while," Palmer said this week. "Look at [defending national champion] Ohio State last year. All great teams get a break here or there."

As they eye a potential run at USC's first national title since 1978, Trojan players have not forgotten last year's game against the Golden Bears. This week, several described it as a turning point for the program.

"We were still trying to find our identity and that was a test for us," said sophomore wide receiver Williams, whose 21-yard touchdown catch with 1:06 left in the first half made the score 21-17. "It became a characteristic of ours to answer the call."

Said junior linebacker Grootegoed: "After that, we knew we could come back from anything."

Cal Coach Jeff Tedford said this week of Kelly's catch: "It probably changed the momentum ... but that wasn't why we lost."

USC was 3-2 overall, 1-1 in the Pac-10 and ranked 20th after losing at Washington State in overtime. Cal was 4-2 and 1-1 in the Pac-10 after defeating No. 12 Washington at Seattle.

Cal quarterback Kyle Boller engineered scoring drives of 74, 66 and 22 yards to give the Golden Bears a 21-3 lead.

"They came out flying ... and had us spinning," Carroll said this week.

USC's pivotal drive began after Grootegoed sacked Boller and then recovered a fumble at USC's 34-yard line.

USC had a third and goal at the six when Palmer dropped back to pass. Kelly ran a route toward the goal post. Cal safety Nnamdi Asomugha bumped Kelly and stayed with him to the back of the end zone.

Kelly, however, spun around when the pocket collapsed. He moved to his right as Palmer began drifting toward the right sideline, leaving Asomugha -- and an official -- a few steps behind.

"I made eye contact with Carson," Kelly said. "He saw the open void and so did I."

Asomugha, a first-round draft pick by the Oakland Raiders, also read Palmer.

"I saw Carson's eyes get real big," Asomugha said Thursday. "I knew he was going to throw Kareem's way. But I thought there's no way he's going to be able to complete the pass.

"I saw the ball go through [Kelly's] hands and I thought, 'Oh, good. He missed it.' Then the ref's hands went up and we went crazy."

So did Palmer.

"I saw the ball hit the ground, but I also saw the ref's arms go up -- and I wasn't going to complain about that," he said.

Neither was Kelly, who credits former Trojan receivers coach Mike Wilson for teaching him protocol on potentially controversial catches.

"He always told us, 'If you catch the ball low, immediately roll over and show the ball to the officials,' " Kelly said. "I remembered that. When it happened against Cal, it was second nature."

Kelly said he can see the Trojans extending the winning streak his touchdown helped start to 21 games by the end of the season. He expects USC to defeat Cal by at least two touchdowns Saturday.

"Hopefully, it doesn't come down to a controversial call," he said. "But if it does, I hope it goes SC's way."

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