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BILL PLASCHKE

USC saves its best for last and deserves a reward

Fifth-ranked Trojans can still win an Associated Press poll national championship.

January 02, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

You saw it, you vote it.

In the wake of a monumental Rose Bowl scrubbing Thursday, the challenge now lies with the rolled-up sleeves of the Associated Press poll.

USC cannot win the Bowl Championship Series national title, but the fifth-ranked Trojans can still win an AP national championship.

After a breathtaking Pasadena afternoon marked by streaks of cardinal flying over lumps of white, couldn't they?

Unless something more inspiring happens in the final week of the bowl season, shouldn't they?

You say crazy. I say, they just beat the crew cuts off a sixth-ranked Penn State team that was one point from playing in the national championship game, a 38-24 victory that didn't feel nearly that close.

You say, what about the lousy Pacific 10 Conference? I say, the conference is 5-0 in bowl games, and if the quality of the neighborhood mattered a month ago, it should matter now.

You say, what about the four one-loss teams ahead of USC? I say, if Texas and Alabama both struggle in bowl games, and if the national title game between Florida and Oklahoma is a dud, nothing will be as impressive as this.

I'm guessing nobody will beat a higher-ranked team worse. I'm certain nobody will dominate another one-loss team more.

It was 31-7 at halftime, the Trojans gaining nearly twice as many yards with nearly three times as many first downs.

It was 38-14 early in the fourth quarter, the Trojans outgaining the Nittany Lions, 497-280, before using the rest of the game to celebrate.

It was receivers open from here to Miami, it was linebackers hitting with a sound you don't hear much in the Big 12, it was the sort of swaggering energy that would feel right at home in the Southeastern Conference.

It was Joe Paterno looking as lost as I'd ever seen him, saying something about an opponent I never thought I'd hear him say.

"I think Southern Cal has every right to say they're as good as anybody else in the country," he said.

It was Pete Carroll looking as happy as I'd ever seen him, saying something that he hasn't believed until now.

After offering respect to the teams playing for the national title, he then said, "I don't think anybody can beat us. This is a terrific finishing program. We can play 'D.' We can throw the ball if we have to. We can run the ball if we have to. We're just really, really hard to beat right now."

They are really hard to beat at the end of every season, but, aside from the BCS national title victory over Oklahoma, this may be Carroll's best finish yet.

Give him a month, he'll make a memory. Hand the championship to the team that is playing the best at the end, and the Trojans arguably could have won six of the last seven national titles.

In November, Mark Sanchez was being questioned as a quarterback and leader.

On Thursday, after accounting for all five touchdowns with four passes and a run, he stood on the famed band ladder and listened to fans literally beg him -- "One more year, one more year" -- to stay for his senior season.

"It's going to be hard to say goodbye to this place," he said later. "I don't think I can do it."

A month ago, Damian Williams was a promising receiver without a 100-yard game or a Mike Williams-type moment.

On Thursday, he had both, catching 162 yards worth of passes, including the trend-setting first touchdown when he simply ran away from this poor outmatched safety named Anthony Scirrotto.

"Playing on this kind of national stage, this kind of win should say a lot," Damian Williams said.

Playing in a fourth consecutive Rose Bowl against another Big Ten tomato can, I thought USC would be bored. Instead, the Trojans bored, directly into the psyche of the overmatched Nittany Lions, hitting them with Kyle Moore jabs and Kaluka Maiava crosses and more speed than you find on the Glendale Freeway at midnight.

"You could see it right away, they were really caught off-guard, they don't see a lot of this in the Big Ten," said linebacker Brian Cushing. "Even in the first quarter, they started getting tired."

Playing in a no-win situation in their first virtually meaningless game in a year, I though USC would be restless. Instead, the Trojans were relentless, scoring 24 points in less than a dozen minutes in that second quarter, sending Penn State running.

"I remember coming to the line and hearing one of their coaches shouting to the defensive backs, 'Back up! Back up!' " recalled receiver Ronald Johnson. "Those guys just bailed."

At the end of a season in which many suspected that USC has the ability to be the best team in the country, the Trojans finally acted like it.

There was the USC team bouncing on to the field in an impromptu celebration -- with nearly two hours left in the game.

There was a touchdown ball being grabbed and pumped and paraded down the sidelines -- by Carroll.

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