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ROSE BOWL | TEXAS 41, USC 38 | COMMENTARY

Fittingly, Title Comes Down to One Play

January 05, 2006|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

In the end, 93,986 could barely breathe. They had packed into the Rose Bowl, expecting to see a classic. They saw more, something that needed a new word. A superlative superlative.

One play. One season. A team legacy, 34 straight victories, three straight national championships, on the line. That team, USC, was hanging on, digging in, fighting one last time for its life.

To win, it had to stop the unstoppable. Vince Young had run and passed his Texas Longhorns into the improbable, most thought the impossible. He had his team on USC's eight-yard line, fourth down and five, 19 seconds left in the game, and the No. 1 team in the country within reach.

The score was USC 38, Texas 33. And the Trojans hadn't been able to tackle Young all night. He might as well have been dipped in grease. They grabbed at him, but slid off. They hit him hard, and he bounced away. He had done the same thing a year ago right here to Michigan, but this was USC, the untouchables of Coach Pete Carroll.

Surely, a defensive stop, orchestrated by the coach with a reputation for defensive genius, would save them in the end. Certainly, Young had to have a human moment.

And so it began as so many plays for Texas did on this perfect Southern California night in the Arroyo. Young taking the snap in the shotgun, all sorts of movement in front of him, confusion, misdirection and the poor defense waiting and praying that they would find him, figure out what he was thinking and where he was going before it was too late.

But it was too late. Young started toward the middle, drew the only Trojan with half a chance at him that way, then took one of those wonderfully long and smooth strides to the right and the outside. Before he made his first down at the three, he had made the touchdown. It opened up almost as if all the Trojans had run the other way, and Young sprinted untouched into the corner of the end zone and on into a horde of Longhorn backers in the back of the end zone.

It was his 19th carry and his 200th yard gained. He added another 267 passing for a night that will be remembered forever in discussions of the Rose Bowl. It is the Granddaddy of Them All, and Young ran and passed his way into favorite son status.

Carroll, classy in victory and defeat, said afterward that Texas had played in an "honorable fashion" all night and that Young had "obviously been the difference in the football game."

USC had come so close to football immortality, and yet, when the smoke clears and there is time to reflect, these Trojans will be able to realize that, if they had to go down, they went down to the best. After a season of finger-waving and poll talk, it turned out that, by the margin of a whisker, Texas is No. 1.

USC had the incredible trio.

Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy last season, turned his back on the pros to have one more season here and one more shot at this. Wednesday night, he put up 365 yards passing and one touchdown, a huge night any other time and any other place except in the shadow of Young.

Afterward, Carroll called him "a great champion."

Reggie Bush won the Heisman this season, put up 84 yards rushing against the Longhorns on a night when the Texas defensive plan was obviously to swarm on him all the way to the men's room. Afterward, disconsolate, he said, "We tried to do too much."

And LenDale White, the Trojans' meat-and-potatoes running back, took nice advantage of Texas' perseverating on Bush by rushing for 124 yards and three touchdowns. Afterward, he said, in nice summary, "My team fought hard."

In all likelihood, this won't be his team next season. White, like Bush, is a junior. White, like Bush, is likely to decide to play for pay next season. Perhaps he will follow Leinart's example and stay, but if you were a betting man ...

But in the end, Texas had Young, and that was enough.

Young is also a junior, but his spot on an NFL roster seems less certain. He has repeatedly said he will stay at Texas, and though those things change, his slashing, running style may be better suited for college than the pros.

So while the cupboard isn't exactly bare at USC, the big guys are now housed in Austin, Texas. One play did it. That was the margin. A whisker that quickly became the Grand Canyon.

Late in the evening of Jan. 4, 2006, in the pride of Southern California sports, the Rose Bowl, a band played the song, "We Are the Champions." And it was, stunningly, aimed not at the team in the cardinal and gold, but the one in burnt orange.

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