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This USC story ends without a title

December 03, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Long after his players had cleared out of the visitors locker room at the Rose Bowl, Pete Carroll lingered by the showers, dressed in a shirt and slacks, but no socks or shoes.

"I don't have a lot of practice at this," the USC coach said in a voice barely above a whisper. "We're going to have to figure it out."

The Trojans were on their way to their third consecutive national championship game and had lost only three times in four seasons. They had defeated cross-town rival UCLA seven years running. Each fall, they had ruled the Los Angeles sports scene.

This extraordinary run ended Saturday afternoon in Pasadena as second-ranked USC lost, 13-9, to an unranked UCLA team that played stifling defense and just enough offense.

The defeat knocked some of the glitter off USC's image and, more important, nudged the Trojans out of contention for next month's Bowl Championship Series title game.

Long after the game, Bruins players remained on the field, hugging and leading their fans in cheers.

"We were trying to get our pride back," UCLA safety Dennis Keyes said. "Trying to get back the heart of the city."

Even as this game upended the local balance of power, it played havoc with the national football scene.

Now third-ranked Michigan will argue for its right to play top-ranked Ohio State in the Jan. 8 title game, even though the Wolverines lost to the Buckeyes, 42-39, two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, fourth-ranked Florida, a winner over Arkansas on Saturday night, also remains in the running to play Ohio State when the final regular-season standings are announced tonight.

Asked about losing out on a chance to play in the BCS title game, a discouraged Carroll said that even if his team had pulled out a last-second victory, "we might not have gone anyway."

The tone was set early, with USC driving into UCLA territory on its opening possession, then facing a fourth-and-one. Trojans tailback Chauncey Washington bulled into the middle of the line only to be stopped for no gain.

The Bruins, who had remade their defense into a more aggressive squad during the off-season, were even tougher against the pass Saturday. Coming into this game, UCLA, with a record of 6-5, decided to attack the Trojans by harassing quarterback John David Booty with blitzes and shifting coverages.

"As far as I was concerned, it was me against Booty," said DeWayne Walker, the UCLA defensive coordinator who previously coached at USC. "If I could get into his head, we could win."

With the game transformed into a defensive struggle, UCLA struck first, as quarterback Pat Cowan assembled a 91-yard touchdown drive in bits and pieces. He scrambled for one key gain after another, then dived across the goal line from a yard out for a 7-0 lead.

USC found a temporary spark, scoring on a safety and a short touchdown run in the second quarter, taking a 9-7 lead into halftime, but the Bruins felt they had the momentum.

"We knew it was a battle," defensive end Justin Hickman said. "Rankings didn't mean anything."

All week long, Carroll and his counterpart, UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell, had sounded a similar note, downplaying the BCS standings and the fact that USC was almost a two-touchdown favorite.

The Trojans were riding the crest of a wave that began in the 2002-03 season, when they dismantled Iowa in the Orange Bowl to finish in the Top 5. The next fall, they won the Rose Bowl and earned a share of the national championship with Louisiana State.

Then came 2004-05, with USC sailing through its schedule undefeated and beating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, 55-19, for an undisputed BCS title.

Along the way, the Trojans packed the Coliseum with more than 90,000 fans for home games and produced an unprecedented three Heisman Trophy winners -- quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, and tailback Reggie Bush -- in four years.

The hype surrounding USC's football program approached that of past Lakers and Dodgers championship runs. The only major blemish occurred at the end of last season, when USC reached the title game again but lost to Texas in the final seconds at the Rose Bowl.

The winning continued this fall, with the Trojans overcoming an upset loss at Oregon State to climb back up the rankings. Dorrell, who took over at UCLA four years ago, could only marvel: "This is a great team."

It was only a year ago that USC pummeled UCLA, 66-19.

Still, like all great rivalries, the history of USC-UCLA has included its share of upsets.

The first came in 1959, with unranked UCLA defeating No. 4 USC. In the late 1980s, the teams took turns knocking each other out of the Top 10.

So the UCLA players suspected they had a chance to win. They kept Booty out of rhythm all day. And as the clock ticked down at the Rose Bowl, with USC driving toward what might have been a winning touchdown, they made one more big play.

Bruins linebacker Eric McNeal tipped a Booty pass into the air, then dived to intercept the ball.

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