At the risk ofkilling the exhilarating, even therapeutic, buzz that USC generated for itselfwith a 32--18 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan on Monday, could there have beenanyone in the Trojans' cardinal and gold who didn't find himself consideringwhat might have been? As giddy as they were over dismantling the Wolverines,the Trojans and their fans might also have been wondering if movie producer andUSC alum George Lucas, the grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses parade,could create some of his cinematic magic and allow the Trojans to travel backin time, to their emotionally scarring 13--9 loss to UCLA early last month onthe very same field.
As they exchangedtheir helmets for Rose Bowl championship caps in the cool of the Pasadenaevening, the USC players had to know that if they had produced against UCLAeven a fraction of the all-around excellence with which they overpoweredMichigan, they would be preparing to play for an even greater title this Mondaynight in the BCS championship game. "It's disappointing because we know wecan play with anybody," said coach Pete Carroll, "but at the same time,winning the Rose Bowl is a very satisfying feeling."
It had to be abit maddening as well. Where had the Trojans who showed up on New Year's Daybeen during an underwhelming 10--2 regular season? Where was this calm,confident John David Booty, the USC quarterback who threw for 289 yards andfour touchdowns in the second half against Michigan? Where was this maraudingTrojans pass rush, which hounded Michigan quarterback Chad Henne relentlesslyand sacked him six times (21/2 by blitzing linebacker Brian Cushing, thedefensive MVP of the game)? "Oh, man, I'm going to ask myself that question100 times," said USC center Ryan Kalil, "but it doesn't do you anygood."
The Trojans muchpreferred to concentrate on their performance against the Wolverines, which wassolid, efficient and, in the case of junior wideout Dwayne Jarrett, downrightspectacular. Jarrett, voted the offensive MVP of the game, caught 11 passes for205 yards and two touchdowns, the second score coming on a 62-yard pass playthat essentially snuffed out Michigan's hopes for a comeback after theWolverines had cut the USC lead to 19--11 early in the fourth quarter. Jarretttwisted defensive backs into pretzels with double moves, making them look likecollege kids covering an NFL receiver, which he will very soon be. "Greatplayers make big plays in big games," said Booty, "and Dwayne's a greatplayer."
While the Trojansfelt a sense of redemption with the victory, the loss deepened the wound theWolverines (11--2) suffered in their 42--39 loss to No. 1 Ohio State in theirregular-season finale. The two schools used the long layoff after thedevastating ends to their regular seasons to do some emotional repair work. USCwas particularly humbled by the way UCLA had shredded what had been a stellaroffensive line, putting constant pressure on Booty and so thoroughly rattlinghis protectors that the Trojans were flagged for five false-start penalties.Three of those calls went against senior tackle Kyle Williams, who was socrushed by his mistakes--and the criticism he received from bloggers andfans--that he abruptly left the team for a day.
At the time, theteam said his absence was for "personal issues." After the Rose Bowl,Williams said, "It was a Kyle day. I took some Kyle time." Although hesays he never planned to quit the squad permanently, it did take Williams'sfather and friends and the USC coaching staff to help persuade him to end hisleave after one day. Carroll gave him the book The Inner Game of Tennis andurged him to read the parts that dealt with handling the stress of competition.The Rose Bowl victory, in which Williams worked to keep Michigan's All-Americadefensive end LaMarr Woodley away from Booty, helped Williams forget about hisperformance against the Bruins. "I could probably replay the UCLA game inmy mind until I'm 80, but I'm not going to do that," he said. "I'm justgoing to think about this one."
The Wolverines'collective psyche was just as fragile in the wake of their Ohio State loss. Itwasn't just that the defeat had cost them a spot in the national championshipgame; the Buckeyes had also made them question their identity as a dominantdefensive team by rolling up 42 points and 503 yards, more than doubleMichigan's average yards allowed over the first 11 games (231.5). SomeWolverines watched the Ohio State game tape repeatedly, looking for flaws to becorrected, while others took the opposite approach. "I watched itonce," says linebacker David Harris. "Any more than that would havebeen too painful."
The Rose Bowlwasn't only a test of which team could more effectively deal with its recentpast, it served as an indicator of which has the more promising future.Michigan and USC will be among the favorites for next season's title. "It'sprobably the biggest bowl game for next year, and everyone knows that,"said Wolverines running back Mike Hart. Several of Michigan's key juniors haveindicated they plan to return for their senior seasons, including Hart, Henneand tackle Jake Long. Sophomore receiver Mario Manningham will be back aswell.
For the Trojans,although Jarrett is expected to turn pro, Booty and All-America tackle SamBaker have said they plan to return for their senior years, meaning USC couldhave seven starters back on offense and 10 on defense. Their Rose Bowl victorymight just propel the Trojans to the preseason No. 1 ranking for 2007. "Itold the guys that next season began tonight," said Carroll. In otherwords, Trojans, forget about what might have been and think about what couldbe.
Behind the scenes with Boise State before and afterthe Broncos' upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
ONLY AT SI.COM