Hand Him The Heisman With a stellar showing against Notre Dame, USC's Carson Palmer proved he deserves college football's most coveted award

December 09, 2002

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.

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 Pac10 games exclusively, told the Los
Angeles Times not long ago, "I think the West Coast guys get

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

"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 Pac10 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.

This is not a screed against Dorsey, who has presided over the
nation's longest winning streak (33 games). The Heisman Trophy is
supposed to go to the season's outstanding player; it is not
intended to be football's version of the Irving G. Thalberg
Award, given for meritorious service over the course of a career.
Although his statistics do not hold a candle to Palmer's, Dorsey
has helped put his team in an excellent position to repeat as
national champions. Let that be reward enough for him.

At the base of the statue of Tommy Trojan on the USC campus is
inscribed the Latin motto Palmam qui meruit ferat--Let him who
deserves it bear away the palm. If this year's Heisman is the
palm, Palmer deserves to bear it away.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [COVER INSET] SI's HEISMAN CHOICE USC's CARSON PALMER COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [T of C] TROJAN WARRIOR Keary Colbert, catching a pass from Carson Palmer, will play in a bowl game, but USC won't know which until Sunday(page 54). COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER PALM D'OR Palmer was golden this year, breaking the alltimePac-10 marks for attempts, completions and passing yards.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)