MIAMI - Carson Palmer and Pete Carroll sat side by side, basking in the big finish to a season of resurgence for Southern California. The subject turned to the future.
"You want to come back?" Carroll asked Palmer.
"I'd love to," the senior replied.
Alas, 45 starts at USC is all Palmer will get. He departs as the Heisman Trophy winner, the Orange Bowl MVP and the quarterback who helped revive one of college football's most tradition-rich programs.
Palmer capped his career by throwing for 303 yards and a touchdown Thursday night to help the Trojans rout Iowa 38-17 in the Orange Bowl.
"That dude has an arm, man," Trojans running back Sultan McCullough said. "I came to Tailback U. Why are we throwing the ball? But, hey, we're winning."
That they are. Playing the toughest schedule in the nation, the Trojans (11-2) won their final eight games. They finished with victories over UCLA, Notre Dame and Iowa by a combined score of 134-51.
The romp past the Hawkeyes was the Trojans' first bowl win in seven seasons.
"We've been at the bottom for a long time," McCullough said. "It was time to change things and restore the tradition. People think we're Hollywood, but we showed we can play with the best of them."
Added receiver Kareem Kelly: "I wish there was a playoff system. I'd like to play the winner of the Miami-Ohio State game."
Plenty of fans probably would love to see that, too.
Losses at Kansas State and at Washington State during the first half of the season cost the Trojans a berth in the title game, but they'll likely be a contender again next season - even without Palmer. Carroll needed just two seasons to take Southern California to the elite level, and he doesn't envision turning back.
"We head into the off-season, the recruiting season, with a lot of momentum," Carroll said. "USC is a powerful place to recruit. That's why we're just getting started."
The long flight home Friday gave the Trojans at least a little time to savor their impressive win over Iowa (11-2). The game was 10-all at halftime, and USC blew it open with touchdown drives of 80, 99 and 85 yards on their first three possessions of the second half.
USC totaled 550 yards, including 247 on the ground against the nation's second-ranked rushing defense.They also put the clamps on Heisman runner-up Brad Banks, who was limited to 204 yards passing and failed to lead the Hawkeyes into the end zone until the final minute.
"Embarrassing," Banks said. "It's tough to lose a game like this when you don't play your best."
Palmer, meanwhile, more than lived up to the hype in his first game as the Heisman winner. His first pass was negated by a penalty, but his second was a 65-yard strike to Kelly. He directed a diverse attack that converted 11 of 16 third-down situations, rolled up 30 first downs and kept the ball for 38 minutes.
In short, he looked more than ready for his next game - in the NFL.
That doesn't mean Palmer is eager to leave USC. He soaked up the atmosphere in the first moments after the victory as teammates celebrated, the crowd chanted and the Trojan marching band played "Fight On."
"I was trying to realize that it was the last time I was going to be a part of the fight song leaving the field," Palmer said. "I don't think anything that's really happened this year has hit me. It's just such a whirlwind."
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