The offensive line broke, and UCLA Bruins rushed through, a blue and gold swarm hell-bent on sacking him like the Greeks did Troy. But Carson Palmer did not panic. The USC quarterback ran. Out of their grasping hands. Upfield.
"I was blocking a guy and all of a sudden, he comes out running around the side," said USC senior offensive lineman Zach Wilson. "It was like, 'Oh my God, what the hell's he doing now?' "
From the UCLA 23-yard line, he ran. To the 20, the 15, the 10, the 5. He saw cornerback Ricky Manning Jr., coiled, waiting for him. There was no hesitation. Palmer threw himself toward the end zone just as Manning delivered a low, violent hit. The quarterback flipped head over heels and crashed to the field at the 1-yard line. A second later, he leapt to his feet.
"When he jumped up . . .," Trojans Coach Pete Carroll said. "I was still holding my breath."
Then Palmer raised his arms and Carroll exhaled, and it seemed every Trojan in the Rose Bowl screamed in celebration. By the end of the afternoon last Saturday, USC -- led by four touchdown passes from Palmer -- had embarrassed archrival UCLA, 52-21, winning the cross-town battle for the fourth time in four years.
To say the run was the greatest play of the fifth-year senior's career might be overstating it. After all, as USC wide receiver Kareem Kelly, a favorite and familiar target, put it, "There's been so many of them, it's hard to know where to start."
Perhaps more than any other play in his roller-coaster collegiate career, the run captured the essence of Palmer, a highly recruited high school all-American from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., who seemed destined to finish with monstrous individual statistics without restoring the program to its past glory.
But this season, victories have finally accompanied his personal achievements, which include breaking the Pacific-10 Conference record for career passing yardage with 11,090. That he has completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,214 yards, 28 touchdowns and 8 interceptions is far less surprising than the fact that USC is 9-2 and ranked sixth going into Saturday's home game against No. 7 Notre Dame.
As of Tuesday, college football analyst Mel Kiper Jr. listed the 6-foot-6, 220-pound quarterback, who has thrown for 1,581 yards and 19 touchdowns in the past five games, as the No. 1 senior prospect in the 2003 NFL draft. He is a leading contender for several national awards, including the Heisman, which Carroll thinks Palmer should win. "What more does he have to do?" he asked. "He's playing like the best player in the country should play."
In seasons past, it had been a different story.
Palmer arrived at USC in the fall of 1998 with the expectations of a once legendary, but then-floundering program resting on his shoulders. John Robinson, unable to resuscitate the Trojans in his second stint as coach, had just been fired, and Paul Hackett had just arrived.
Before the season was over, Palmer had become the second true freshman in school history to start at quarterback -- the other was Rob Johnson, now in the NFL -- and the team finished 8-5. He was brilliant at times, but with six interceptions and only seven touchdowns, hardly a savior.
"I'm just a punk kid coming out of high school. I don't know my left from my right, and all of a sudden people are telling me all these things," Palmer said. "I'm like, 'Sure. I'll do that. That'll be fun.'
"Everybody kind of put way too many expectations on me."
Palmer began his sophomore season eager to improve, and after two victories, appeared to be on his way. But in the following game against Oregon, he made a costly mistake. Instead of running out of bounds near the end of the first half, he took on a tackler and broke his collarbone.
"I should have just stepped out of bounds, but I was trying to send a message, which was stupid," he said. "Right when it happened, I just kind of thought, 'This was supposed to be my year. I'm supposed to do all these things people are saying I'm supposed to do.' "
The injury ended Palmer's 1999 season, which he wound up redshirting.
"He was crushed," his father, Bill Palmer, said. "He kept thinking he'd be back, he'd be back. It's only going to take three or four weeks. And it took a lot longer than he thought."
For the first time in his career, Palmer found himself forced to watch games. He watched quarterbacks Mike Van Raaphorst and John Fox struggle through a 6-6 season. The more he watched, the more he learned.
"All of a sudden, you can't do anything, you're not the leader anymore," Palmer said. "To watch somebody else step into that role and step into that mode, and to see how effective they are and how ineffective they are, definitely helped me out a lot."
Palmer returned for the 2000 season with new perspective, determined to take the next step. He put up big numbers, throwing for 2,914 yards and 16 touchdowns, but had 18 interceptions, and USC finished 5-7. Hackett was fired, and Carroll replaced him. But the coaching change had no discernible effect on Palmer in 2001. Again, he was prolific, with 2,714 yards passing, but had only 13 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. The team ended the season 6-6.
"I didn't understand that from your freshman year to your sophomore year, there's a huge level you need to step," he said. "There's a huge transformation you need to make into being that quarterback or that player that everyone expects you to be, and I didn't make it. I wasn't ready to make it. I wasn't even ready to be that player my junior year. I wasn't mature enough."
Petros Papadakis, a Fox Sports analyst and former Trojans tailback, blames coaching inconsistency for many of Palmer's woes. Palmer has had five different quarterback coaches during his time at USC. But with Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow behind him, Palmer has prospered.
"Chow knows how to protect him," Papadakis said. "Chow doesn't drop him back seven steps. Chow moves the pocket."
The one person who never stopped believing was Palmer. With every missed pass or interception, he spent more time studying film and in the weight room. His work ethic is renowned among his teammates, and his desire to persevere is no surprise to anyone, especially his father.
"What stands out to me about him is the way he handles adversity," Bill Palmer said. "NFL people tell me that what they're interested in seeing is what happens after you do something bad. It's not that you throw an interception. It's what you do after that they're concerned more about than the fact that you threw one. They want to see how you react.
"If something goes bad, [Carson] goes right back at it. Doesn't even hesitate."
The ability to fail, endure failure and persist in the face of it helped a quarterback finally become the player he hoped to be.
And of course, it led to the run against UCLA.
"When he took flight and was airborne, trying to get into the end zone, that play right there -- that showed me that Carson is a true champion and also a true warrior," Kelly said. "He sacrificed his body at any cost.
"And that says a lot, being a quarterback. Quarterbacks are usually taught to slide, get out of bounds. But that's never been Carson."
"Stupid," said Palmer, reflecting on the run. "Coach got on me about it. Just slide or get out of bounds or whatever."
Then he let slip the slightest of smiles.
"But you have to. It's UCLA. Your instincts just take over in a situation like that, I should have gotten in the end zone.
"I wish I would have."