He put up jaw-dropping numbers this season. He toyed with Notre Dame's No. 2-ranked pass defense last Saturday. As the final hand in the Heisman Trophy contest was played out, he saw Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey and raised him. Yet even as he threw for 425 yards and four touchdowns in leading Southern Cal to a 44-13 rout of the Fighting Irish, USC senior quarterback Carson Palmer left us longing for a Heisman moment that might galvanize his candidacy. It could have come on a double-reverse pass in the third quarter, but his primary receiver, wideout Kareem Kelly, was covered. So Palmer checked down to his third read, hitting tight end Alex Holmes for a ho-hum 16-yard gain.
Maybe this was Palmer's moment: As he walked off the field at the Los Angeles Coliseum for the final time as a Trojan, the fifth-year senior held high the jeweled shillelagh that goes to the winner of the fabled Notre Dame-USC rivalry. The cudgel is made of blackthorn and oak—the only woods "tougher than an Irish skull," according to USC's football media guide—and perhaps he thought he would need it to beat down the doors at the Yale Club of New York City, where the Heisman ceremony will be held on Dec. 14.
Palmer led his team to a 10-2 record against the toughest schedule in the nation. He threw for 3,639 yards and 32 touchdowns, including 2,006 yards and 23 scores in his last six games. He is likely to be the first quarterback, if not the first player, selected in next spring's NFL draft. His 425 passing yards last Saturday were the most ever given up by the Fighting Irish. "He's got my [Heisman] vote," said Notre Dame strong safety Gerome Sapp, who doesn't actually have one. It remains to be seen if the people who do have votes—921 members of the media and past Heisman winners—will be willing to cast their ballots for a West Coast player whom many of them have seldom seen. "If it happens, I'll be honored," says Palmer. "If it doesn't, I totally understand because there are a ton of great players out there, a ton of great guys."
You can't blame Palmer for not getting his hopes up. The last time a Left Coaster won the Heisman was 1981, when USC's Marcus Allen took the statuette. When Palmer hit freshman wide receiver Mike Williams for the 18-yard completion that put him over 400 yards against the Irish, it was 8:13 p.m. Pacific time, or 11:13 Eastern. The game ended 23 minutes later, well past the bedtimes of many Heisman voters. The Heisman electorate is divided into six regions. Three of those are in the Eastern time zone, and just one is in the Pacific. A large number of voters don't see late-starting West Coast games. As veteran broadcaster Keith Jackson, who now works Pac-10 games exclusively, told the Los Angeles Times not long ago, "I think the West Coast guys get screwed."
Palmer's Heisman hopes have not been helped by the fact that no one expected this kind of season from him—not even USC, which did not mount a Heisman publicity campaign or so much as put Palmer on the cover of the Trojans' media guide. A former high school phenom from Santa Margarita, Calif., the 6'6" 230-pounder entered his senior season having given every indication that he would fall short of his potential. Though as a freshman he started the final four games of the 1998 season and won three, Palmer missed most of '99 with a broken collarbone (he redshirted after the injury) and then struggled the next year in the intricate West Coast offense of coach Paul Hackett, who was fired after the 2000 season. New coach Pete Carroll brought in highly regarded Norm Chow as offensive coordinator, Palmer's fourth in four years.
One of the reasons Chow is among the highest-paid assistants in college football is that he knows how to tailor his system to his quarterbacks, who have included Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer and, more recently, North Carolina State's Philip Rivers. In his second season under Chow, Palmer was suddenly scary. "It wasn't like he was doggy doo when we got him," says Chow, "but now he's just very comfortable."
"When we first got here, Carson's confidence was in the dirt," says quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian. "It seemed as if he felt he was the reason this program wasn't succeeding. This year he's so much more relaxed. He's always in attack mode."
"Every week," says Palmer, "I feel more comfortable and confident. I know what call is coming in." He has led the offense to 427 points—the most since the '72 squad, which won USC's last outright national title. Against Notre Dame the Trojans had 610 yards of offense, while their defense held the Irish to 109. For the first time in 21 years USC beat top rivals UCLA and Notre Dame in the same season, a feat so sweet that the mere mention of it caused Carroll to break down during his postgame press conference.
"There's more fun to be had," said the coach upon regaining his composure. Despite two early-season losses, to Kansas State and Washington State, the Trojans have a chance to play in a BCS bowl. If UCLA beats Washington State on Saturday, then USC would be the Pac-10 champ and go to the Rose Bowl. If the Cougars win the game and the Rose Bowl bid, then the Trojans still have a strong case to be the at-large team in the Orange Bowl. "We'll play anybody," said Carroll. "This is a fantastic club. I can see how some people might not want to play us."
He got that right. Between the Palmer-led offense and a defense that held Notre Dame to four first downs, Southern Cal is playing as well as any team in the country—including No. 1 Miami. The Hurricanes' 49-7 tap dance on Syracuse last Saturday was accompanied by the hyperventilating of Brent Musburger, who scolded those among us who would question the Heisman-worthiness of Hurricanes quarterback Ken Dorsey. While Dorsey completed 16 of 25 passes for 345 yards and two touchdowns, those stats came against an Orangemen team that entered the game ranked 115th out of 117 Division I-A teams in pass defense.