||Thursday, January 2
Updated: January 3, 2:25 PM ET
Palmer outduels Banks in bowl showdown
By Wayne Drehs
MIAMI -- Carson Palmer stood on the instantly erected platform, lifted the FedEx Orange Bowl MVP trophy above his head, and smiled. The heavy clear bowl, stuffed with some 30 oranges, began to tip and citrus cascaded everywhere. The smile didn't budge.
A hundred yards away, in a tiny meeting room underneath Pro Player Stadium, Iowa quarterback Brad Banks sat, flanked by reporters at every angle. They wanted to know what went wrong. Why he struggled. And whether this settled the debate whether Carson Palmer indeed deserved to win the Heisman Trophy.
"I don't know," Banks said. "I guess, maybe. He certainly was the better quarterback tonight."
Other than that, he was dead on, becoming the first quarterback since Danny Wuerffel in 1997 to win a bowl game after winning the Heisman Trophy. Nebraska's Eric Crouch couldn't do it last year, nor could Chris Weinke the year before. Palmer? He had little trouble, completing 21-of-31 attempts for 303 yards and a touchdown.
"He was the man tonight," receiver Kareem Kelly said. "He took all that Heisman pressure and just ignored it."
The numbers only told a fraction of the story. He threw the ball with pinpoint accuracy. Not only did his passes hit his receivers in the hands, but they repeatedly hit the target on the opposide side from a closing defender. When the pocket collapsed, he took off, proving that his legs are often as lethal as his arm.
"He proved why he won that award tonight," Iowa linebacker Fred Barr said. "He dropped back, picked us apart and when we least expected it, he'd take off and run."
The Hawkeyes admittedly over-respected the Pac-10's career leader in passing and total offense, which left gaping holes in Iowa's stingy run defense. USC steamrolled a Hawkeyes unit that surrendered just 68.1 yards in the regular season for 265 yards and four touchdowns.
The reason? Palmer, and more specifically, his 65-yard strike to Kelly on USC's second play from scrimmage.
"When they threatened us with that pass, that set the tempo for the whole game," Iowa defensive tackle Colin Cole said. "We were a freaked out. And they kept using the pass to set up the run."
Perhaps it was a 48-day layoff. Perhaps it was the nerves from playing in his home state, in front of a host of friends and family. Or perhaps it was the fact that he was facing the best defense he had seen all year. Whatever the case, Banks was far from meeting the Heisman challenge.
Midway through the third quarter, Iowa had nearly as many penalty yards (80) as passing yards (91). Even more staggering, Banks threw an interception, just his fifth of the season and his first since Oct. 15.
"I'm my toughest critic," Banks said. "So I'll be the first one to tell you that I did a terrible job tonight. It was embarrassing. That was one of the poorer games of my college career."
Banks, the AP Player of the Year, who led the nation in passing efficiency (166.1), completed 15-of-36 attempts for 204 yards and one touchdown. But 131 of those yards came in the fourth quarter, when USC had built a 31-10 lead to all but put the game out of reach.
"He started out sharp, but when we started stopping them, he got a little flustered," USC linebacker Matt Grootegoed said. "I don't think he was prepared for that."
Palmer, on the other hand, looked like he was prepared for anything. Though his numbers weren't gaudy, he ran the offense impeccably.
"He did the things he had to do," receiver Mike Williams said. "When he was under pressure, he didn't just chuck it in the air for it to get picked. When he could run, he ran. He executed like a senior quarterback should."
Palmer was at his best in two second half drives that put the game out of reach. On the first possession of the second half, he completed 5-for-5 attempts for 82 yards. Four different receivers caught the five passes, with Williams' 18-yard touchdown grab capping it off.
USC's next drive was just as deadly. Palmer led a backbreaking seven-play, 99-yard jaunt that culminated with a 50-yard run by Justin Fargas. On a third-and-eight and 8 from the 3-yard line, Palmer escaped the Iowa rush to pick up nine yards with his legs and seduced the defense into a late hit penalty.
That, head coach Pete Carroll said, was the play of the game.
"That's when things turned around," Carroll said. "I'm not sure Carson would realize it, but on the sidelines, that run got our guys all fired up."
Afterwards, some USC players admitted this was personal. The Iowa defense chirped all week how they were coming after Palmer, looking to prove that their guy, Banks, deserved the award. The Trojans took it personally.
"There was too much in the papers," nose tackle Bernard Riley said. "Then they started smacking the other night at dinner how they were going to do this and they were going to do that. And they wanted to take shots at Carson. Well, look what happened. We did our talking on the field.
Did they ever. And Palmer has the oranges to prove it.
"I can't imagine going out in any bigger way than this," the quarterback said. "This has to be the biggest game of my career."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Irish limp to finish line after red-hot start