Trojans, Utes Go Bowling Amid Distractions Of Las Vegas

Dec. 25, 2001

LAS VEGAS - Utah safety Arnold Parker is a Las Vegas native, so he knew an appropriate way to kick off a news conference in a casino.

'Let's get it on!' Parker said with a grin.

After a week spent avoiding and enjoying the diversions of their bustling host city, Utah and Southern California will have the nation's sports television audience to themselves during the Las Vegas Bowl on Tuesday in mostly empty Sam Boyd Stadium.

But vacant seats won't affect the teams, whose first meeting since the 1993 Freedom Bowl holds remarkable importance for two programs looking for strong finishes to inconsistent seasons.

'People say there aren't going to be any people in the stands, but it doesn't matter,' said USC quarterback Carson Palmer, a junior who threw for 2,567 yards and 13 TDs this season. 'Everybody is going to be watching at home, and we all know what's at stake. This will make or break our season.'

The Trojans (6-5) rebounded from a miserable start by qualifying for the game with four straight victories to close the regular season, while Utah (7-4) wants a victory to erase the taste of two difficult season-ending losses.

'We had our times during the season when we didn't know where we were going to be at the end of the year,' USC coach Pete Carroll said. 'We made it through all those problems and all those distractions, and this game is an incredible way to finish the year.'

It's also an important game for the Utes, who fell back behind Brigham Young for supremacy in the Beehive State this season after several years on fairly equal ground. Utah made its sixth bowl in 12 seasons under coach Ron McBride despite losing its last two games in heartbreakers to BYU and Air Force.

'This game is great for us because of the national exposure you get, but it's also important to build into next year,' McBride said. 'A lot of people are going to see us, and we can show a lot of good things about Utah football.'

Appropriately for a bowl game sponsored by video game-maker Sega, the 10-year-old Las Vegas Bowl was moved to Christmas Day this year to serve that captive TV audience.

Neither team expects the bowl to resemble a high-scoring video game, however. The Utes hope to control the ball and the clock while gradually wearing down USC's patchy defensive line, while USC hopes an extra month of practice in coordinator Norm Chow's offense will decrease their inconsistency.

Behind Utah's powerful offensive line, running back Dameon Hunter rushed for 1,396 yards this season - the second-best season in the history of a program that featured Jamal Anderson, Mike Anderson and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala in recent years.

'The game should be fun, and it's been a great week here,' said Hunter, who was shown some of Las Vegas' sights by Parker. 'It's a good challenge to finish up my career.'

Though the teams get first-class treatment from the bowl's organizers, both teams' coaches were wary of letting two large groups of college kids loose in Las Vegas.

USC encouraged its players to stay away from the gaming tables - though some, including Palmer, still found time to lose some money - while the Utes stopped for two days of practice in the quiet southern Utah city of St. George before venturing onto the Strip.

By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer

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