Lofa tatupu arrived late and in a bad mood. The USC linebacker had just watched Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers complete his 20th consecutive pass, a little flare that Bears fullback Chris Manderino turned into a seven-yard gain. As the fullback fought to stay upright, Tatupu repeatedly tried to punch the ball from his grasp. Problem was, he kept missing the ball, landing right after right on Manderino's back.
Walking back, Rodgers got in Tatupu's face and said, "You didn't come close to the ball."
Tatupu flashed an expression that said, And your point is? "I don't care," he replied.
In that moment Tatupu spoke for his teammates, his coaches and the Trojans fans among the 90,008 souls who jammed the Los Angeles Coliseum for what turned out to be one of the most electrifying college games of this young season. The most significant matchup west of the Big 12 in 2004, this intrastate smackdown was an epic battle of wits between two of the college game's big brains: Cal coach Jeff Tedford, a turnaround specialist and offensive savant, and his USC counterpart, the defensive mastermind Pete Carroll. When it was over--after Rodgers had tied an NCAA single-game record by connecting on 23 straight passes, after the defending national cochampions had survived a tachycardia-inducing goal line stand and hung on for a 23--17 win--the Trojans did not care that they'd been beaten everywhere but on the scoreboard. They didn't care that Cal had rung up 28 first downs to their 12, or 157 rushing yards to their 41, or 267 passing yards to their 164. They cared about the number in their loss column: zero.
"It's not exactly how you might like [to win]," Carroll admitted, "but when you play a Top 10 team this is what you should expect. It's going to be really hard."
The No. 1--ranked Trojans may yet make it to the Orange Bowl, site of this season's BCS title game, but it's going to be, to parrot Carroll, really hard. Unlike the '03 Southern Cal squad, whose average margin of victory en route to the AP national title was 23.4 points, this crew has not been dominating; three of its five wins--over Cal (now No. 8), Stanford and Virginia Tech--have been uncomfortably close.
Repeating as national champion would have been difficult even without the misfortunes that have befallen USC since the spring. Starting tackle Winston Justice was suspended for the fall semester for flashing a "replica firearm" at another student last February. Starting fullback Brandon Hancock ruptured a muscle in his chest and tore his right ACL; he'll miss the entire season. Wide receiver Whitney Lewis, coming off a dazzling spring and penciled in as a starter, became an academic casualty. Dominique Byrd, the team's best receiving tight end, missed spring ball while recuperating from a knee injury. Having fully recovered, he cracked his left kneecap in a pickup basketball game in July.
It was lemon juice in the paper cut for Carroll that the person with whom Byrd banged knees was Mike Williams, the erstwhile Trojans wideout who would be vying for the Heisman Trophy this season if he hadn't decided to join Maurice Clarett in declaring for the NFL draft last February. (Barred from the draft by the courts in May, Williams was denied reinstatement to USC by the NCAA.) There was the 2003 first-team AllAmerica on the sideline at USC's practice last Thursday, passing time in football limbo by raising his voice at receivers who dropped balls and poking fun at Carroll, who likes to take part in passing drills.
"Look at him pat the ball--he thinks he's a real quarterback!"
When the subject of Dwayne Jarrett arose in a conversation with a reporter, Williams became serious. "I talk to him a little bit," he said. "He's a little homesick or whatever. He's talking about transferring."
Jarrett, a 6'5", 195-pound freshman with a 40inch vertical leap and game-breaking talent, has been called upon by Carroll to fill Williams's shoes. The freshman from New Brunswick, N.J., went into the Cal game with 13 catches, including two for touchdowns, but he'd had difficulty hanging on to the ball. Even when Jarrett had been at his most stone-handed, however, Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart had always come back to him. "You get frustrated here and there when receivers miss a pass," says Leinart, "but they've got to know I have confidence in them."
That patience paid off on Saturday, as Jarrett caught four passes for 37 yards and a touchdown and dropped not a single ball. He was also responsible for the game's most spectacular play, soaring to snare a pass when USC went for it on fourth-and-11 from the Cal 32-yard line in the first quarter. Low-bridged at the apex of his leap, Jarrett somersaulted in midair and hung on to the ball despite a violent landing. That circus catch set up the Trojans' first touchdown.
"This was the first time you could see what Dwayne can do," said Carroll, unable to contain his excitement in his office 45 minutes after the game. "It was exactly like what Mike Williams used to do here."
Saturday also marked the return to the lineup of Byrd, who, despite catching 10 passes against the first-string defense in practice, was shut out by Cal. In keeping with the nothing-comes-easy ethos of these '04 Trojans, Byrd's return and Jarrett's arrival was offset by the departure of Steve Smith, Leinart's goto receiver. The sophomore left the Coliseum on crutches, having fractured his left fibula after a catch across the middle in the third quarter. He's likely to be out for six weeks. Smith was replaced by senior Jason Mitchell, a reserve best known for his prowess as a downfield blocker. Carroll called the loss of Smith "huge."
His absence contributed to the good-but-not-great showing by Leinart, who completed 15 of 25 passes for 164 yards. He threw two TDs and an interception and spent more time than usual on his back. While Leinart blamed himself for the four sacks USC gave up, the truth is, he's throwing behind a young line to inexperienced receivers who can't always get open.
Leinart suffered in comparison with Rodgers, as any QB in the country would have on Saturday. The Cal junior finished a sterling 29 of 34 for one touchdown and no picks. Even his first incompletion, which came with 8:57 left in the game, impressed: Rather than shoehorn a pass to Manderino at the left sideline hoping to keep his streak alive, Rodgers safely threw the ball away.
Rodgers presented a puzzle for Carroll, who serves as his own defensive coordinator. If the Trojans blitzed, Rodgers would make them pay, as he had a year ago during the Bears' 34--31 triple-overtime win over USC, which cost the Trojans a chance at an undisputed national championship. When Carroll sent only four rushers, Rodgers had the time, and the pinpoint accuracy, to find the underneath receiver.
"They gave us the look we saw on film all week," said Rodgers afterward. "We knew we could exploit 'em underneath."
That style--taking the short stuff--won't work against USC unless a quarterback is "extraordinarily efficient," Carroll pointed out. "But this guy was friggin' lights out."
Rodgers did not deny that he had looked forward to sharing the stage with the more ballyhooed Leinart. The appearance of those two, and other, NFL prospects lured more than a dozen pro scouts to the Coliseum. "No question, both guys have NFL futures," said one NFC scout of the quarterbacks. "Aaron's probably a little more mobile than Leinart, and he's got a purer NFL arm. He's got a great command of his ball. He throws with accuracy, throws with touch and he's got arm strength. Those are the three components you need."
Not bad for a kid who couldn't get a sniff from a Division I college coming out of high school in Chico, Calif. After flirting with the idea of playing at Division III Lewis and Clark, and even of quitting football to concentrate on baseball, Rodgers enrolled at Butte College, a juco in nearby Oroville, where he starred for a season. The day after he committed to Cal, Rodgers says, he got a phone call from then Washington coach Rick Neuheisel, who declared, "We've wanted you from Day One. We've got a scholarship for you."
"Slick Rick," says Rodgers, smiling.
Rodgers's 20-yard laser to Geoff MacArthur midway through the third quarter set up Cal's final score. It also was his 19th straight completion, two more than the previous Pac10 record, set in '84 by then UCLA quarterback Rick Neuheisel.
The Bears drove the ball down the field on their final two possessions but could not get in the end zone. "We rope-a-doped 'em," joked Carroll. The first drive was terminated by a missed field goal. The Trojans promptly went three and out. During the TV timeout preceding Cal's final possession, which started on its own 35yard line with 4:31 to play, a USC coach could be heard telling his charges, "Make 'em go 65 yards! Make 'em [screw] it up!"
The Bears didn't screw up so much as the Trojans stepped up. After Rodgers marched Cal down to USC's nine with 1:47 to play, the Bears had four shots at the end zone. Rodgers threw an incomplete pass, was sacked for a five-yard loss by Manuel Wright, then missed on two more passes. The home team seemed not so much joyous in victory as relieved. Among the many Trojans who went out of their way to embrace Rodgers or shake his hand on the field was Mike Williams. What he said to the quarterback remained between them, but it might as well have been, See you in The Show.
Nothing comes easy for USC. Next up is Arizona State, another well-coached, undefeated team with a red-hot quarterback, Andrew Walter. "We have to turn it around, get right after it this week," warned Carroll.
One final question, Coach. The Bears doubled your offensive output. J.J. Arrington rushed for 112 yards. Rodgers wrote his name in the record books. Considering this, how do you think you did in your one-on-one matchup with Tedford?
Carroll answered in two words:
When it was over, the Trojans didn't care that they'd been beaten everywhere but on the scoreboard. They cared about the number in their loss column: ZERO.