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USC and Texas shouldn't have any problems scoring points in the most anticipated championship game .... since last year.

January 04, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The numbers are too big, too extravagant, to ignore.

Almost 1,000 yards a game. More than 100 points on average.

Looking at the offense generated by USC and Texas this season, Pete Carroll can draw only one comparison.

"Video games," the USC coach said. "There are so many explosive players on both sides, offenses that are wide open ... this is rare."

But it could be a handful of smaller numbers that make tonight's Rose Bowl game -- the top-ranked Trojans versus the second-ranked Longhorns for the national championship of college football -- truly special.

Three players stand out: USC has quarterback Matt Leinart and tailback Reggie Bush, both Heisman Trophy winners, and Texas has quarterback Vince Young, a Heisman finalist.

For the bowl championship series, the beleaguered system that so often has failed to produce an acceptable title game, the critical number is two.

Not only do USC and Texas hold the top two spots in the polls, they are the only undefeated Division I-A teams in the nation.

Which brings the final count to zero. As in no controversy.

"This is a great game for college football," Texas Coach Mack Brown said. "It's a game that every college football fan will watch."

Before anyone gets too breathless, remember that last year at this time every bit as much hype swirled around the Orange Bowl showdown between USC and Oklahoma. That game turned into a 55-19 USC blowout.

Still, there is no denying that Pasadena offers a marquee matchup.

The Trojans are riding a 34-game winning streak and hoping to make history by winning an unprecedented third consecutive Associated Press title. Studying videotape of USC, Texas linebacker Rashad Bobino has caught himself thinking: This isn't game film, it's a highlight reel.

"Man, I can see why they're No. 1 in the nation," Bobino said.

All season, opponents have talked about the Trojans' multiple weapons, Bush and backfield mate LenDale White each surpassing 1,000 yards at tailback, receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith having strong seasons.

But the offense begins with Leinart, who has proven especially adept at the mental side of the game, changing plays at the line of scrimmage, completing passes at critical moments.

So the key for Texas' highly ranked defense, which features All-Americans in defensive tackle Rod Wright and defensive back Michael Huff, could be harassing the quarterback.

"Our coaches told us all week we've got to get pressure on him," defensive end Tim Crowder said. "We know that's going to be an important thing because we have to help the linebackers and the [secondary]."

The Longhorns, with a 19-game streak of their own, come into this game as underdogs if only because conventional wisdom paints them as a more one-dimensional offense.

That plays into Carroll's reputation for devising defensive game plans. The problem is, the one dimension is Young.

While Texas has a talented group of receivers and two solid tailbacks in Jamaal Charles and Ramonce Taylor, the quarterback has been the undeniable star.

Young not only passed for 2,769 yards and 26 touchdowns this season, he also led his team in rushing with 850 yards and nine scores. The latter statistics concern USC most.

Preparing for this game, the Trojan defense has paid special attention to Texas' "zone read" option.

Operating out of the shotgun, with a tailback at his side, Young takes the snap and quickly scans the field. If the defensive ends maintain their outside position, he hands off up the middle. If they crash in toward the running back, he keeps the ball and either breaks outside or looks to pass.

Just as worrisome are the unscripted plays.

For much of the season, Texas receivers have run intermediate and long routes, which "stretches the field out and gives [Young] a chance to take off when he wants to," Carroll said. He later added that "the really mobile quarterbacks are the most difficult to defend."

This predicament falls upon a USC defense that has not been as dominant as in seasons past. The Trojans have endured injuries, a few inconsistent games and plenty of doubters this season. They rank 35th in total defense nationally, though that number suffered from a schedule that included six of the country's top 20 passing offenses.

In the weeks since the regular season ended, players such as linebacker Keith Rivers have recuperated and safety-turned-cornerback Josh Pinkard has benefited from more practice at his new position.

The defense can also boast of grabbing 37 fumbles and interceptions this season, giving USC a nation-leading 1.83 turnover margin. Texas has fumbled 31 times, losing eight.

"The takeaways are the big thing," Young said. "You've got to protect the ball."

The final issue in this game, lurking in the background, are special teams. Texas has excelled -- ranking third in kickoff returns and fifth in punt returns nationally -- while USC has struggled.

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