The scene inside the victorious USC locker room confirmed what we already knew: Pete Carroll was born to coach the college game. Before his players made special teams coach Dennis Slutak rap the first verse of the Snoop Dogg single Drop It Like It's Hot and before they whooped it up and boogied down around a handful of Orange Bowl officials, they delighted in the sight of their 53-year-old head coach performing a dance he calls the Trojan. No wonder Carroll didn't stick in the NFL. The man has too much fun. ¬∂ He dances, he takes part in seven-on-seven passing drills, he leaps from USC's 10-meter diving platform to break up the monotony of two-a-days. Four days before his regular-season-ending matchup with crosstown rival UCLA, Carroll demonstrated yet again why he belongs on a college campus. Despite the fact that this rivalry, the so-called Silicone Bowl, is in intensive care--the Trojans went into last Saturday's game having won their previous five against their neighbors from Westwood by a combined score of 181--85--there was Carroll, missing only a letter sweater and megaphone, gushing about the significance of a game "for all the bragging rights in Southern California!"
His players lacked the thespian skills to pretend that the 6--4 Bruins would be anything but one final tackling dummy to swat aside on their road to the Orange Bowl, site of this season's BCS championship game. UCLA, observed tight end Alex Holmes, a taciturn senior, would be "just another game."
For a change, though, UCLA was more than that. After yielding a mind-bending 65-yard touchdown run to Reggie Bush on USC's second play from scrimmage, the Bruins found ways to hang around, often flummoxing quarterback Matt Leinart, who for the first time in 25 career starts did not throw a touchdown pass. Were it not for the right foot of Ryan Killeen (five field goals) and the ankle-breaking cuts of Bush (204 yards on 15 carries, two touchdowns), the nation's top-ranked team would not have escaped with a 29--24 victory.
But escape the Trojans did, becoming the first USC team to finish the regular season 12--0. The following day their Orange Bowl bid was made official. It was the best news of a news-filled week in Troy. USC was coming off a 31point rout of Notre Dame that had led to the firing of Fighting Irish coach Ty Willingham. Had it been unsporting for Carroll to call a fake punt that led to a score late in that blowout? Would Norm Chow, USC's Heisman-minting offensive coordinator, be offered the vacant head coaching job at Stanford? If Chow left, would Leinart, a junior, make himself eligible for the draft? But those questions tended to obscure a much larger one: Is Southern California on the verge of doing what was supposed to have been impossible after the NCAA whittled scholarships to 85 a decade ago: building a dynasty? The Trojans have now won 21 straight, and 32 of their last 33. After running the table they'll return in 2005 with a team that should actually be better. If you didn't beat them this year--the Bruins were one of five teams to stay within 11 points of USC--you may have missed your best chance for a while.
"All I can say is that we're gonna be very scary next year," said Leinart, drained and smiling after the game. "You don't want to get ahead of yourself, but it's exciting to know that with all the young guys we have, next year we could be even better."
So Leinart is planning to come back? "Absolutely," he said.
"Yeah, but you can't trust a quarterback," cracked junior linebacker Lofa Tatupu.
for giggles, let's say Leinart wins the Heisman this weekend, leads his team to its second straight national title and has a change of heart. Figuring his stock will never be higher, he goes pro. What then? The Trojans would be quarterbacked in '05 by John David Booty, the Louisianan who skipped his senior year of high school to come to USC. Booty would likely be pushed by Mark Sanchez, a 6'4", 211-pound senior from Mission Viejo High, who has verbally committed to SC, choosing the Trojans over Ohio State and Texas.
Whoever calls the signals will do so behind a line that returns virtually intact and in front of a backfield that will include Bush and his bruising fellow tailback, LenDale White. Both will be juniors. In fact it's easier to point out the impact players who won't be back in 2005: senior defensive linemen Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson, a pair of All-America candidates who spent much of Saturday afternoon in the Bruins' backfield.
Will there be a dropoff? Not necessarily, says junior defensive end Frostee Rucker. "Someone's gonna be the next Shaun Cody. Someone's gonna be the next Mike Patterson. That's what we do here."
It is what they have done in four years under Carroll: stockpile superstars from all over the country. It is a recruiting strategy not without its dangers. "The kind of high-profile kids they're after," says Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for scout.com, "a lot of those guys aren't going to commit till January." (Sanchez is an exception.) While the Trojans play the waiting game with those bluer-than-blue chips, second-tier players commit elsewhere. If things don't break their way in the final week, the Trojans could be left scrambling. Says Wallace, "The USC staff is thorough, relentless and willing to take enormous risk."
Maurice Drew, the UCLA tailback who earlier ran for 322 yards against Washington, was on the Trojans' wish list coming out of Northern California power De La Salle High in 2003. He opted for Westwood not because he feared competition from Bush and White, he says, but because he wanted to help build a program from scratch. "Coming from a Number 1 team in high school," he says, "I didn't want to just go right into a Number 1 team in college. I wanted to try to help build a program up."
Others may avoid the Trojans because they fear they'll never see the field. Ed Orgeron, USC's Dline coach and recruiting coordinator, insists that such fear is unfounded. "Really," he says, "we're not that loaded."
You're right, Ed. USC doesn't have more than a couple dozen future NFL players. Maybe it should drop down to IAA.
"We're loaded at some spots," he concedes. "But we're not loaded at every spot, and guys see that."
Opponents try to see it. Where best to attack the Trojans? Leinart is among the best quarterbacks in the country at recognizing what defenses are trying to do. "You put eight in the box, he throws," says Arizona head coach Mike Stoops. "Put seven in the box, he gets them in a running play. You roll [coverage] over to [star freshman wideout Dwayne] Jarrett, he goes to the tight end. He's back there saying, 'You take away that guy, I'll go to this guy.' It's tough to take everybody out of the game, know what I mean?"
One key, says Stoops, is "disguising your defensive looks as long as possible. You can't show him anything presnap, or he'll hurt you."
"We try to change it up on him," says Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory. "Sometimes you bring four, sometimes five; sometimes bring three and drop eight. You can't blitz every time, because if you do, Leinart's gonna kill you. You can't sit back and play cover-three either, 'cause he'll kill you that way. What you want is a mixture of playing zone, playing man, combination man-zone, blitz and blitz-zone."
Gregory tries to strike the balance between having enough in the package that Leinart is kept off-balance "and not having so much that your kids are overwhelmed, with a thousand things to think about."
"We told our guys, 'They're gonna get plays on you,'" says Gregory, whose defense held the Trojans to a season-low 23 points in a 23--17 defeat on Oct. 9. "'Just stay within yourself, don't go in the tank, and don't give up the big explosion play.'"
Which raises the question: How do you stop Bush? "Grab hold and wait till the cavalry comes," Gregory suggests. "The scary thing about him is that they line him up at tailback or at any receiver position." Leinart is always looking for a mismatch. "If you've got a linebacker covering [Bush]," Washington State coach Bill Doba noted earlier this season, "you might as well start singing the [USC] fight song."
Talented though the Trojans' young offensive line is, it is not impregnable. In a fog-shrouded game on Nov. 6, Oregon State defensive end Bill Swancutt sacked Leinart two times. UCLA got to Leinart three times and limited him, remarkably, to a single successful third-down conversion in 13 attempts. The Bruins, whose successive byes coming into this game gave them three weeks to prepare for the Trojans, tried to confuse Leinart with a variety of looks. They also played plenty of two-deep zone, conceding underneath throws but taking away the deep ball. (In the process they may have deprived Leinart of the Heisman. His chief rivals--Jason White, Bush and Adrian Peterson--all had better games.)
The most anticipated matchup--UCLA's potent rushing attack versus the Trojans' stout defensive line--proved to be no contest. The Bruins rushed for 17 net yards. At halftime their leading ground gainer was Wesley Walker, a linebacker who'd rumbled for 11 yards on a fake punt.
"That's the best [defensive] front in America," said UCLA quarterback Drew Olson, who nonetheless eluded Cody, Patterson & Co. often enough to do some damage through the air. With long completions to wideouts Tab Perry and Junior Taylor, Olson engineered two second-half touchdowns that kept the game close.
"That secondary wasn't the greatest," said Taylor. "If you can hold off the front four, you can break those guys down. One corner is a freshman, the other, a junior. The safeties have a little more experience, but they're more bangers than cover guys. Whoever they play they're gonna have good film to see what to do against this defense."
If you're holding this magazine on Friday, six days after Taylor uttered those words, it's a safe bet that Jason White has already watched a dozen hours of USC video. And the Orange Bowl is still more than three weeks away.
Unlike Auburn, the Trojans didn't need style points to get where they wanted to go. They just needed to win. Having done so, they pinballed the length of the field, celebrating with the cardinal-and-gold-clad fans in the north end zone of the Rose Bowl, then the south, then the north again. Bush appropriated the ladder used by the conductor and led the Trojans band in a rendition of Conquest. Oranges flew from the stands, and no one seemed to mind.
Having celebrated and danced and showered and changed, Carroll made his way through a near-empty locker room. Stepping outside he embarked on one of his free-form, Dennis Hopper--in--Apocalypse Now stream-of-consciousness riffs: "This is what I feel: What's happening--it ain't too good to be true. People are having fun, they're doing it from their heart, for the right reasons. We're not breaking any rules, and, shoot, man, we're doing it in Southern California." Repeating his mantra once more, for effect--it ain't too good to be true--he walked up the rampart and into the night.
How do you stop Bush? Gregory, the defensive coordinator for Cal, suggests an answer: "Grab hold and wait 'til the CAVALRY comes."
The Trojans should be BETTER IN 2005. If you didn't beat them this year, you may have missed your best chance for a while.
It's a safe bet that Jason White has already watched DOZENS OF HOURS of USC video. And the Orange Bowl is still three weeks away.