In the end, it seems, Carson Palmer's winning the Heisman Trophy was a surprise mainly to Carson Palmer.
The USC quarterback was so astonished when his name was announced in ceremonies at the Yale Club tonight he put his hand to his chest and proclaimed: "My heart's about to come out of my shirt." Yet when the actual tally of votes was announced, he had won overwhelmingly, besting second-place finisher Brad Banks by 233 points.
"I had no idea what to expect, this is amazing," said Palmer, who became the first Pacific-10 Conference player to win the award since Marcus Allen in 1981. "A lot of people have been talking about the East Coast bias, and I think this kind of answers that."
Actually, most of the talk had been of this being the closest Heisman race, and indeed, it turned out to be the second time in the 68-year history of the award five players received more than 100 first-place votes. Yet for all the weeks of hand-wringing comparison, Palmer's margin of victory over Banks was strikingly decisive and a practical avalanche compared with the 62-point margin of last year's winner, Eric Crouch. (Voters rank players first-second-third, with points awarded for each place.) Penn State's Larry Johnson, who won several other postseason awards earlier this week, came in a distant third tonight, followed by sophomore Miami running back Willis McGahee and then finally, McGahee's Hurricanes teammate, quarterback Ken Dorsey.
It was a particularly stinging fall for Dorsey, who had come into the season as the Heisman favorite. "The expectations coming into the season were high, and in some people's minds I didn't fulfill those expectations, in that I didn't throw for 5,000 yards and make 75 percent completions," Dorsey said after the award was announced. Still, he added, "even though I came out dead-last in Heisman voting, last time I checked, I'm still going to the [national championship game] Fiesta Bowl. So I'm very happy for Carson."
So were many all over the country, it seems. In the breakdown of Heisman voting, Palmer won every region except the Midwest, where Banks came in first. In the past, California players have had a tough time winning national recognition, as their games are often broadcast after many Heisman voters have stopped watching football for the night. Yet Palmer made himself hard to miss, playing particularly dazzling football through the final weeks of the season.
He practically ate up yards against Washington (348), Oregon (448), Stanford (317), Arizona State (214) and UCLA (254), and his 425-yard performance against Notre Dame was the most lethal of any opponent in Fighting Irish history. That final performance seemed to resonate particularly with voters, 67 percent of whom held their ballots until after Dec. 7.
"We had a chance to play that great game against Notre Dame when people were tuned in all over the country, and that might have been what put me over the top," said Palmer, who blossomed this season after a previous record of 16-16 as a starter. He was hardly a preseason favorite, and even an hour after receiving the trophy, he appeared stunned.
"I thought this was all crazy even 10 minutes before they announced my name, and I'm still haven't come to the realization it's really happened," he said.
Palmer may have been the most astounded player of the night, but of all the candidates coming into the evening's festivities, it was Banks who was the most surprising. The 6-foot-2 quarterback had never started a Division I game before this season and had only been playing for Iowa since his junior year, when he transferred from a junior college in Mississippi.
Johnson also had a breakout season, emerging out of Penn State's three-back rotation to become just the ninth back in NCAA history to rush for more than 2,000 yards. His, Banks's and Palmer's careers are a sharp contrast to that of Dorsey, a blue-chipper who has gone 38-1 as a starter over the last four years. But Dorsey fell in some voters' estimation this season as he was often overshadowed by his sophomore teammate, McGahee. McGahee, in turn, was handicapped by his age; no sophomore has won the Heisman Trophy.
"I wasn't expecting to win, I was just happy to be in a category with all of them," McGahee said. "I did think it was going to be a close race. But Carson took it, and he took it by a big margin. So congratulations to him."