Without a Doubt

After a thundering Orange Bowl victory, a young USC team has back-to-back national titles, 22 straight wins and the makings of a dynasty
After a thundering Orange Bowl victory, a young USC team has back-to-back national titles, 22 straight wins and the makings of a dynasty
January 10, 2005

Ashlee Simpson had just finished belting out a halftime number called La La when a balmy night in South Florida turned suddenly cold. Lusty boos cascaded on the black-clad, acid-reflux-afflicted singer. Don’t take it personally, Ashlee. Your critics at the Orange Bowl—some of them, anyway—were disgruntled Oklahoma fans who knew that your pal Casey Cobb was friendly with USC junior quarterback Matt Leinart. They were trying to get back at him any way they could. The Sooners’ defense sure wasn’t laying a glove on the guy. Seriously, were those Oklahoma’s starters out there on Tuesday night? Reading coverages like a motorist studying a billboard, bouncing on the balls of his feet behind nearly flawless protection, Leinart completed 13 of 23 passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions. In the first half.

By then, of course, the game had been decided and millions of viewers had channel-surfed over to The Amazing Race. So comprehensive was Southern Cal’s domination in this 55–19 rout, so cool and lethal was Leinart, so airtight and opportunistic was the defense, so elegant was the play-calling of offensive coordinator Norm Chow, that it seems mean-spirited to point out the national championship game didn’t come close to living up to its hype. Let’s face it: The Game of the Century, as some had taken to calling the matchup of 12–0 teams, was not even the Game of the Week.

Grant it this, though: The Orange Bowl beat the hell out of last year’s title game(s). Remember that muddle? Three nights after USC defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl to lock up the AP’s No. 1 ranking, LSU upset Oklahoma in the Sugar, clinching the top spot in the BCS. It was college football’s New Year’s Irresolution.

In taking the Sooners behind the woodshed, in racking up 525 yards of offense, in limiting extraterrestrial tailback Adrian Peterson to 82 yards on 25 carries, the Trojans effectively muzzled Auburn partisans who’d been spoiling for a share of the national title. Yes, the unbeaten Tigers held off Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl on Monday night (sidebar). But to any person who saw both games, there is only one rational conclusion: USC is in a league of its own--and the Trojans might be there for a while. With only six seniors in the starting lineup, USC has the makings of a dynasty. Heisman finalist Reggie Bush and fellow tailback LenDale White are sophomores, as is playmaking wide receiver Steve Smith, whose three touchdown catches included one he somehow cradled with one hand while a defender tugged on the other. For sheer acrobatics, that reception was matched only by the one-handed touchdown grab of tight end Dominique Byrd, a junior. Rangy wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett, a true freshman, was the third Trojan to catch a scoring pass on Tuesday night. The entire offensive line returns next year, as will most of the defense.

What about Leinart? After the 2004 Heisman winner threw five touchdown passes on Tuesday night, his stock took another jump. Will the Orange Bowl MVP join Cal’s Aaron Rodgers and Utah’s Alex Smith in migrating early to the NFL? Posed that question after the game, he said, “Right now I still plan on coming back.” Leinart reflected on the possibilities should he return, including playing for a third straight national championship, in USC’s backyard. Next year’s BCS title game is in the Rose Bowl. Concluded Leinart, “It’s going to take a lot for me to leave.”

The stunningly lopsided score disproved the pregame notion that the two teams were evenly matched. (USC was a 11–point favorite.) Certainly the two programs bore an uncanny resemblance to each other. Both are among the Top 10 in all-time victories; USC had 10 national titles entering the game, Oklahoma seven. Both are led by energetic, telegenic coaches who are charismatic recruiters, who are strongly rooted in defense and who awakened sleeping giants in a hurry. Bob Stoops won a national title in his second year at Oklahoma; Pete Carroll shared one in his third at USC. Both offenses are well-balanced and high-powered—they were before the Orange Bowl, at any rate—as is to be expected when the quarterback and star running back are Heisman finalists. (Peterson and Sooners quarterback Jason White, the 2003 Heisman winner, finished two-three in this year’s balloting.) The look-alike defenses—“Like playing against ourselves,” noted White—each featured a standout lineman named Cody, the Sooners’ Dan and the Trojans’ Shaun.

How would USC stop Peterson? How would it get pressure on White? Wasn’t Oklahoma’s offensive line among the finest in the country? USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron spent the week before the game tossing bouquets in the direction of the men his unit would be facing. ‚“They’re awesome, man,” Orgeron said. “Seven sacks all season? That’s unheard of!”

Damian Strohmeyer for Sports Illustrated

But in the privacy of a meeting room in the Trojans’ hotel, with the game just 30 hours away, Orgeron—the excitable Louisiana native who would begin his new job as Ole Miss coach the day after the Orange Bowl—dispensed with diplomacy. Yes, he agreed, the right side of the OU line, Outland Trophy winner Jammal Brown at tackle and Davin Joseph at guard, was excellent. His assessment of the left side was less charitable. As for center Vince Carter, whom Orgeron had publicly all but christened the next Mike Webster: “He ain’t gonna block [Trojans tackle] Mike Patterson. If Patterson’s gettin’ blocked by that guy, he better not come to the sideline.”

Orgeron said this while seated in front of a laptop, poring over video clips of Oklahoma’s favorite plays and muttering observations:

“Here’s Adrian on a power play. They’re kickin’ out. Ooh, he hits the hole quick!”

“See that cornerback? He’s gotta rip across that block.”

“See that double team? We’ve gotta get a hat in the crack.”

In the video the defenses of Texas A&M, Baylor and Oklahoma State went after the Sooners with a variety of exotic blitzes. “That’s not what we wanna do,” said Orgeron. ‚“We gotta beat ‚‘em with a four-man rush. We gotta wear their asses out.‚”

The Sooners adjusted nicely to a few special schemes Orgeron had cooked up for them, but it didn’t matter. By beating their blocks and maintaining what the coaches call ‚‘gap responsibility’ (plugging their assigned holes), USC’s defensive front dominated the line of scrimmage, holding Peterson to just 3.3 yards per carry and forcing White into three ugly interceptions. Shaun Cody had five tackles and a momentum-killing 14-yard sack in the second quarter, but he wanted the credit to go to the guy who plays behind him, junior linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who had a game-high 12 tackles. “You should have heard him back there, calling out their plays—“Left! Right!‚Screen!” said Cody. “It was like he was in their huddle.”

That wasn’t the only talking done by Tatupu, who is generously listed at 6 feet and 225 pounds. He delights in walking among mammoth offensive linemen after making a play, telling them, “Man, you‚’re getting your butt kicked by a midget. How embarrassing is that?”

When it came to the converse matchup—USC’s offensive line versus Oklahoma’s D line—one man’s opinion was more sought after than any other. Channeling former Sooner Brian Bosworth two weeks before the game, Oklahoma sophomore defensive end Larry Birdine was overcome by a spasm of candor, telling the team’s beat writers that beyond Bush, the Trojans were an “average team‚” and calling Leinart ‚“definitely overrated.”

That was the last that we heard from Birdine for a spell. Forbidden by Stoops from speaking with reporters for the first six days the team was in Miami, Birdine was finally given the go-ahead for Media Day on Jan. 2. He strove mightily to be circumspect but wasn’t always successful. In discussing Taitusi Lutui, USC’s 6'6", 370-pound right tackle— “He’s strong, but he may not be as quick as other guys I’ve seen”—Birdine consistently mispronounced the mountainous Tongan’s name as ‘Pitooie.’

“God blesses me with three sacks,” Birdine concluded, “so be it.” The Almighty was not, as it turned out, so generous to Birdine, who according to several Trojans had less and less to say as the game wore on. Which is not to say USC players did not attempt to draw him out. Leinart directed several remarks to the chastened Sooner but would not repeat them for the media after the game. It’s reasonable to assume they were along the lines of what tight end Alex Holmes said to Birdine in the third quarter: “I was blocking him with one arm and telling him, ‘You’re not going anywhere, buddy.’” After the Trojans went up 45–10, Holmes asked Birdine,“Is [Leinart] still overrated?”

Bill Frakes for Sports Illustrated

The Sooners defender whom Leinart was most likely to go after was Marcus Walker, a soft-spoken freshman cornerback who did not play a snap for the first eight games of the season. Then, on Nov. 6, in the second quarter of a game at Texas A&M in which the Oklahoma corners had missed tackles and given up several long passes, the coaches burned Walker’s red-shirt. Calling it a desperate situation, co-defensive coordinator Brent Venables says playing Walker on the field was‚ “our best option. Our only option.”

Walker didn’t get torched over the final three games of the season, but that was mainly because no passer really picked on him. The period of benign neglect came to an end in the Orange Bowl.“We’re going to win, you know!” Leinart’s dad, Bob, declaimed outside the team hotel on the eve of the game. Would his son be going after the freshman corner? ‚“Oh, yeah,” said Bob. “Deep and high to number 8.”

That No. 8 is Jarrett, who had a busy fall, what with turning 18 and conquering homesickness and a case of the drops before emerging as Leinart’s most dangerous receiver. Jarrett stands 6'5"; Walker is 5'11". On a third-and-eight early in the second quarter, Leinart lofted a pass toward Jarrett 18 yards up the left sideline. Walker never turned to face the ball, which Jarrett plucked off the top of Walker’s helmet. On the next snap Leinart unleashed his most beautiful throw of the night, a 54-yard bomb that Jarrett caught in stride for a touchdown to put the Trojans up 21–7.

Going into the game, USC’s success seemed more likely to hinge on a much-discussed hinge: LenDale White’s right ankle, which he sprained in the final regular-season game and was still not healed. While his teammates whooped their way through spirited practices, the 6'2", 235-pound sophomore—the thunder to Bush’s lightning—was limited to a few straight-ahead running drills until Thursday. That evening White ran into Glena Carroll, Pete’s wife, at the team hotel. After asking him how his ankle felt, Glena put her hands on it and said a short prayer.

White felt markedly better the next morning and credited Glena, who quickly became known among Trojans faithful as Our Lady of the Lobby. But would White be the bludgeoning force he was before his injury? “I’m not going into the game worrying about that,” Pete Carroll said three days before the game. If White wasn’t himself, Carroll insisted, the electrifying Bush would pick up the slack. The prospect of Bush’s getting 30 touches rather than his customary 15 or 20 would create “a whole different set of problems” for a defense. (Yet, after entering the game late in the first quarter, White gashed the Sooners for 118 yards on 15 carries, scoring twice.)

This was vintage Carroll, the alchemist transforming bad news into opportunity. As rain pelted his team during Friday’s practice, he bounced around the field, telling his players how much he envied them. “Man, I wish I could put on some pads.” Later, he spoke of how fortunate the Trojans had been to practice on slippery turf, in rain and wind, because they might have to play in those conditions during the game.

After all, why should bad weather dampen Carroll’s spirits, given the run of setbacks he had during the season? The NCAA rules that your star receiver, Mike Williams, can’t return to the team after declaring for the NFL draft? In Carroll’s world that simply opened the door for Jarrett, who emerged as a Williams-caliber talent. Smith broke his left leg in the fifth game of the season? O.K., so we get to see what some of our reserves can do! Orgeron, who doubles as recruiting coordinator, is headed to Ole Miss? “It’s what we hoped for,” said Carroll. “Can’t keep guys sequestered and trapped here forever.”

Guys would say, ‘Why are you going to SC? They’re not winning. The Coliseum’s half full. The school’s in the ghetto.’

That goes for the players, too. Some among Carroll’s initial crop of recruits played their final collegiate game at the Orange Bowl. The first, and best, of them was Cody, a defensive end who, in his junior and senior seasons at Los Altos High in Hacienda Heights, Calif., had a total of 255 tackles and 57 sacks. He was considering a number of colleges. Then the Trojans fired coach Paul Hackett and hired Carroll, who immediately went to work on Cody. It’s instructive now, following USC’s 22nd straight victory and second straight national championship, to remember that Carroll’s hiring provoked an angry backlash among Trojans backers. One prediction proved to be particularly absurd: that he’d have trouble signing talented players because he had no recent experience as a recruiter.

After 16 years as an assistant, coordinator and coach in the NFL, Carroll says, one of the things he likes best about college coaching is not being constrained by the draft and the salary cap. He can compete for any player he likes. Cody was struck by Carroll’s vision for the program and awed by his knowledge of defensive football. “I remember thinking, Wow, I think they can [win a title],” Cody says. “I just didn’t think it would happen so fast.

By committing to USC, the Parade All-America became a pioneer of sorts: the first big-name recruit to sign with Carroll, to take that leap of faith. At banquets and all-star games following his senior season, Cody’s fellow blue-chip recruits would ask him what on earth he was thinking. “Guys would say, ‘Why are you going to SC? They’re not winning. The Coliseum’s half full. The school’s in the ghetto.’”

“Look at us now,” Cody said before the Orange Bowl. “I feel so fortunate to have made that choice.”

And after the game, there he was roaming the field, bear-hugging everyone in sight. “It’s been an incredible ride,” he kept saying. Cody is stepping off the elevator, but it’s still going up.

To any person who saw the bowl games, there is only one rational conclusion: USC is in a LEAGUE OF ITS OWN ... and the Trojans might be there for a while.