A Real Laugher
USC quarterback Carson Palmer's return was a pratfall, but that didn't stop the Trojans
Someday USC quarterback Carson Palmer will look back on his performance last Sunday against Penn State in the Kickoff Classic and laugh. But he figured, why wait? The USC sophomore quarterback bounced his first pass off a receiver and threw an interception on his second attempt. Palmer got on the headphones with quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson after the Trojans' opening series. "We were laughing," Palmer said later. "I told him, 'Don't let me throw anymore.' Hey, sometimes you just don't have it"
In his first appearance since breaking his right collarbone in the third game of last season, Palmer completed 10 of 20 passes for a scant 87 yards. After losing Palmer last September, USC dropped five of its next six games and finished 6-6. Against the Nittany lions, with Palmer underachieving, the Trojans nevertheless dominated, winning 29-5.
USC was as effective at running the ball, gaining 164 yards, as it was at stopping the rushing game of Penn State. The Trojans held the Lions to six yards on the ground, the fewest in Joe Paterno's 35 years as Penn State coach. Given Sunday's performance, there's no guarantee mat this year the Lions will get Paterno the seven victories he needs to surpass Bear Bryant as the winningest coach in major-college football history.
When Paterno arrived at his postgame press conference, he was asked if he wanted to stand behind the lectern or sit at the table. "I think I'll sit," he said. "I'll be a smaller target." He then acknowledged how poorly his team had played before he took questions about the five false-start penalties committed by his offense, the punt that got blocked for a USC touchdown and the ragged play of senior quarterback Rashard Casey (seven completions in 24 attempts for 106 yards).
The Trojans, meanwhile, laid the first brick in the restoration of the Pac-10's sagging reputation. But if they're going to finish the job, they'll need a lot more from Palmer, who looks like a quarterback that Hollywood would draw up. He's 6'5" and 220 pounds with blond hair, a strong jaw and humility. Jackson and USC coach Paul Hackett love his attitude. After his injury last season, Palmer became so intent on learning the West Coast offense, which Jackson had installed but Palmer had hardly bothered to study, mat he all but sublet the couch in Jackson's office. "That's very unusual," Jackson said after Sunday's game. "It's hard to be [on the team] and not play. He was mere morning, noon and night.
"I had to call on our relationship [during the Kickoff Classic]," Jackson added. "I told him, 'Hey, buddy, if it's not going the way we want it to, we'll put you on our back. Hand off the ball.' "
Tailback Sultan McCullough, a speedy sophomore, proved in his first start that he could gain the tough yards inside, finishing with a game-high 128 yards on 29 carries. "We all know at some point this season we'll have to jump on Carson's back," said Jackson. "He'll be ready."
Palmer endured rehab, he endured wearing the yellow don't-hit-me jersey during preseason practice—"We wear yellow practice pants, too; I looked like a banana," he said—so he should survive this setback. "I've seen guys sulk when they play poorly," said Jackson, "but after the game Carson was laughing."
No matter how you looked at it, the Trojans won a laugher.