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COLLEGE FOOTBALL : Chris Dufresne / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Four And Out

Carroll and the Trojans could have been working on an amazing championship run except for these little things . . .

November 06, 2008|Chris Dufresne | Dufresne is a Times staff writer.

Columnist note: If not for a combination of four plays since the fourth quarter of the 2005 season's championship game, the passage below could have been sent to press and appeared, as typed, in today's paper:

With five consecutive national titles in Trojans tow, a current No. 1 ranking, the man he voted for soon to drop luggage at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and No. 21 California headed to the Coliseum this weekend, life couldn't get much better for USC Coach Pete Carroll.

He too is on the precipice of history:

It took Alabama Coach Bear Bryant, considered by many the greatest college football coach ever, nearly a quarter-century to win six national titles for the Crimson Tide.

Yet here sits Carroll, eight games into his eighth season at USC, five victories shy of a sixth crown.

Remember when people argued the 85-scholarship rule had leveled the playing field?

Yeah, right.

You could envision circumstances in which Carroll, a traditionalist with an NFL background, could have once cried for a playoff in college football.

He might have, had this fantastic fortune not fallen his way, found humor in a silly system called the Bowl Championship Series.

Other than 2003, though, when the BCS bypassed his No. 1 team, only to have the Associated Press step in to right that wrong, what complaints could Carroll have about a system that is about to chisel his face on Mt. Passmore?

OK, back to reality . . .

The plays:

1. Jan. 4, 2006, Rose Bowl, Pasadena. USC had won national titles in 2003 (AP) and '04 (BCS) and was riding a 34-game winning streak into the 2005 national-title game against Texas.

USC led, 38-33, with 2:13 left and faced fourth and two at the Texas 45.

Instead of punting, Carroll went for the first down that would have clinched a third consecutive national title.

With Heisman Trophy winner tailback Reggie Bush out of the game, LenDale White was stopped short, and Texas drove 56 yards for Vince Young's winning touchdown.

Carroll after-game quote: "I'd do it exactly the same way time and again. . . . We always go with LenDale in those situations. Always. We have for three years."

2. Dec. 2, 2006, Rose Bowl, Pasadena. Trailing 13-point underdog UCLA, 13-9, late in the fourth quarter, USC faced third down deep in Bruins territory when quarterback John David Booty's pass, intended for Steve Smith, was miraculously tipped and intercepted by linebacker Eric McNeal. Had the pass been complete and USC gone on to win, the Trojans would have played Ohio State in the BCS national-title game.

Anyone think USC would have lost?

Instead, Florida edged out Michigan for the No. 2 spot and crushed the Buckeyes, 41-14.

Alternate 2006 play: Oct. 28, 2006, Reser Stadium, Corvallis, Ore. Third-ranked USC trailed Oregon State, 33-31, late in the game when Booty's pass on a potentially game-tying two-point conversion was batted down by Jeff Van Orsow.

3. Oct. 6, 2007, Coliseum, Los Angeles. Second-ranked USC was a 41-point favorite over Stanford. But on fourth and goal from the USC 10 with 49 seconds left, quarterback Tavita Pritchard found receiver Mark Bradford in the end zone for a touchdown that produced a shocking 24-23 victory. The defeat ultimately denied USC a chance to play Ohio State in last year's BCS title game.

Anyone think USC would have lost?

Instead, two-loss Louisiana State made the game and defeated the Buckeyes, 38-24.

Carroll after-Stanford quote: "It's a crusher to have to give it up."

4. Sept. 25, 2008, Reser Stadium, Corvallis. USC was No. 1 in both polls when it visited unranked Oregon State (1-2). Trailing 14-0 in the second quarter, USC faced third and seven at the Beavers' 33 when the Trojans called for a direct snap to tailback Joe McKnight, who ended up fumbling. Oregon State recovered and drove 58 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-0 at the half.

It may be a stretch to say this play cost USC the game . . . or is it? Had McKnight not fumbled (on a very strange play call) and the Trojans had been able to make it 14-7 at the half, I'm convinced USC would have rallied to win.

As it was, USC outscored Oregon State 21-6 in the second half and lost, 27-21.

With the game against Cal on Saturday and Oregon State controlling its own Rose Bowl fate, USC's focus has to be on the "what now?"

Still, you can't also help but wonder: "What if?"

Blitz package

* How about them rotten apples? This year's Apple Cup on Nov. 22 in Pullman will pair two of the worst Washington teams in history. Washington and Washington State are 0-16 vs. major-college competition this year (Washington State's lone win came against Portland State).

Washington has lost eight games by the average score of 41.6 to 14.1; Washington State has lost eight games by the average score of 54.2 to 7.8.

Washington State ranks next to last, No. 118, in total offense to Washington's No. 113. Washington ranks 117th in scoring offense to Washington State's 118th.

On the other side of the line, Washington State is last in scoring defense. Washington is No. 116.

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