College football countdown: No. 10 USC

Friday, July 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Palmer lends leadership, arm to USC's quest for Rose Bowl

Carson Palmer spent all but three games last year nursing and rehabilitating a broken collarbone. At times, it took all the young quarterback had not to go over the edge.

After a year of frustration – not to mention grueling workouts to return to playing form – Palmer is back on the Southern Cal sideline and is eager to make up for lost time.

It's a good thing, too. Without a potent tailback in the system, USC will depend on Palmer to carry the Trojans back to prominence. They haven't won the Pac-10 since a tie in 1995. They haven't been to the Rose Bowl in five years, and they didn't go to any bowl game last year.

Those are facts not lost on Palmer.

"USC has lost some respect,'' Palmer said. "We haven't won any big games lately. This year, though, we're going to be so much better. We have to do it. Coach [Paul] Hackett may not be back if we don't do it. There is a ton of pressure on him. It's time for us to get it done.''

That all starts with Palmer. He was good on 73.6 percent of his passes last season before he was knocked out for the season against Oregon. That marked the end of a potentially good season for the Trojans. They finished 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the Pac-10 to tie for sixth in the league. The highlight, though, was finally getting by UCLA after an eight-game losing streak to the Bruins.

"It was tough to sit out and watch a team losing and not be able to do anything about it,'' he said. "In a way, though, it was the best thing for me. I learned so much from watching us lose and from watching us win. You could tell that there was not a lot of leadership out on the field. That's something I can help with.''

He can help in other ways, too. For starters, he can get the ball to receiver Kareem Kelly, who should be Palmer's primary target this year. However, in the backfield, prospects are a little shaky. Sultan McCullough leads a group that also includes Malaefou MacKenize and Petros Papadakis.

There may be a bit of uncertainty on offense, but on defense, the Trojans return 10 starters. The unit was third in the conference in 1999 in scoring defense. They are led by defensive tackle Ennis Davis and cornerback Antuan Simmons. Also, linebackers Zeke Moreno and Markus Steele are stellar for USC.

The Trojans open the year against Penn State to jump in the heat right away. As they enter the year ranked first in the league, USC must respond – with Palmer giving the first answer.

"People expect us to win and we expect to win every game,'' Palmer said.

USC Schedule- Aug 27 Penn State (Kickoff Calssic at Meadowlands); Sept 9 Colorado; Sept 23 San Jose State; Sept 30 at Oregon State; Oct 7 Arizona; Oct 14 Oregon; Oct 21 at Stanford; Oct 28 California; Nov 4 at Arizona State; Nov 11 Washington State; Nov 18 at UCLA; Oct 25 Notre Dame

USC Trojans Capsule

COACH: Paul Hackett (14-11 in 2 years; 27-31-1 overall).

LAST YEAR: 6-6 (3-5 in Pac-10).

OUT: The No. 1 player on the offensive line last year, guard Travis Claridge, is gone. The Trojans are still talented at wideout, but R. Jay Soward, the star of the receiving corps, is out.

IN: Carson Palmer is the most welcomed returnee. Palmer was sidelined most of last season with a broken collarbone but is healthy and ready. Also, tailback Malaefou MacKenzie, who was slowed by a hamstring injury last year and an ACL tear in 1998, is back and ready to challenge for the starting position. Junior college transfer Chris Cash is a plus for the secondary.

BIG PLUS: The Trojans are favored to win the conference and return to a bowl game after missing postseason action last season. That kind of faith will only build their confidence as they open the season against Penn State.

BIG MINUS: There is no sure-bet in the backfield should the Trojans need to run the ball. That could develop later in the season, but it doesn't appear that USC will start out with a ground threat.

NATIONAL TITLE IF: The offense needs to come around and keep pace with the talented defensive unit. Even the defense could use some help, though. They allowed 19 touchdown passes and gave up 256 passing yards a game. Also, the Trojans must cut down on the penalties that hit them hard last season.

BOTTOM LINE: This is a critical year for coach Paul Hackett. The Trojans are 26-22 over the last four years and haven't been to the Rose Bowl in five years. It's a must-win scenario for the team, with opening games against Penn State and Colorado.

Top 25 So Far

25. Clemson
24. Mississippi
23. So. Miss.
22. Utah
21. Texas A&M
20. Penn State
19. Tennessee
18. Colorado
17. Oklahoma
16. Purdue
15. Illinois
14. Kansas State
13. Florida
12. Ohio State
11. TCU
10. USC