USC heads into Rose with unlikely drive to title gaining speed

In rebuilding year, Trojans may win share of crown

College Football

December 31, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES - The top-ranked Southern California Trojans will play for a share of the national championship when they meet fourth-ranked Michigan tomorrow in the 90th Rose Bowl, which could be considered surprising for a variety of reasons.

They finished third in the complicated Bowl Championship Series standings, which was devised for the high purpose of crowning an undisputed national champion.

They lost an overtime game to unranked California (though a pretty good Virginia Tech team discovered last week that Cal was no pushover).

And, despite a storied football history matched by few other major college programs, they hadn't won a Pac-10 Conference title outright since 1989.

It that doesn't make this an unlikely title drive, then consider something that makes it borderline amazing: USC is in a rebuilding year.

The Trojans had to replace Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer and the rest of the offensive backfield, yet they dominated the Pac-10 like no USC team since the school was known for churning out Heisman Trophy-caliber tailbacks in the 1960s and '70s.

Quarterback Matt Leinart and sophomore receiver Mike Williams needed surprisingly little time to establish themselves as the most dangerous passing combination in the country, combining for 1,226 yards and 16 touchdowns. Three young running backs - LenDale White, Hershel Dennis and Reggie Bush - rolled up a total of 1,852 yards on the ground.

The original plan was to depend on a strong defensive unit to remain competitive while head coach Pete Carroll and highly respected offensive coordinator Norm Chow developed a consistent attack, but the Trojan offense grew up almost overnight - achieving a run/pass balance that was almost impossible to resist.

Just ask the 11 teams that gave up at least 31 points to the Trojans this year. The only team to hold them under that number was Auburn, but that was small consolation in a season-opening 23-0 USC road victory.

"Early on, we knew it would be tough, after losing a Heisman Trophy winner and three running backs to the NFL," said Chow, "but as the year went on, other young running backs stepped up."

That only made it easier for Leinart and Williams to emerge as instant Heisman contenders, finishing sixth and eighth in the voting for college football's most prestigious award.

"I couldn't imagine having a season like we've had," said Leinart, a junior out of Southern California athletic powerhouse Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana who still has two years of football eligibility remaining. "Going into this year, the coaches told me to play smart, play efficient and just lead the team. Nothing special. No big plays. You don't have to win the Heisman. You don't have to be Carson Palmer."

So he went out and turned in the same kind of year that made Palmer the top pick in the 2003 NFL draft. Leinart completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,229 yards and 35 touchdowns, registering the highest passing efficiency rating (163.2) in school history.

"I've learned a lot from Carson - how he handled himself on and off the field," Leinart said. "He taught me a lot about the game. I took a lot from Carson."

By most accounts, however, the heart and soul of the USC offensive attack is Chow, who has nurtured a number of outstanding quarterbacks over a long coaching career, including then-freshman Philip Rivers at North Carolina State in 2000. Rivers just completed a stellar college career with the Wolfpack and is expected to be a top NFL draft choice.

Chow also coached NFL-bound quarterbacks Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer in 27 seasons as an assistant at Brigham Young. Perhaps if he were more of a self-promoter, he already would be the first Asian-American head coach of a major college program, but Chow spent a Monday news conference giving all the credit to the players.

"The young guys have been exciting," he said. "They have taken every bit of coaching advice and have been terrific to work with. These guys deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their work ethic and the amount of time they put in."

It has been a long road back for USC. The Trojans were the dominant football power in the West from the 1960s through the 1980s, playing in 14 Rose Bowls in those three decades, but they have appeared in the New Year's Day Classic just once since playing in the game in 1990.

Carroll, just one year removed from a three-year stint as head coach of the NFL's New England Patriots, took over a struggling program that had posted a mediocre 31-29 record over a five-year span from 1996 to 2000. The Trojans went 6-6 in his first season, but re-emerged as a national power last year with an 11-2 record and a victory over Iowa in the Orange Bowl.

"USC is one of those programs with a great tradition," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said yesterday. "Pete Carroll deserves a lot of credit for restoring that around here. He's instilled a great attitude, and he's been able to capitalize on the pride here."

Now, Carroll's on the verge of a national title in only his third season as a college head coach and - with 18 starters expected to return next year - has an excellent chance to be in contention for the national championship in each of the next two seasons.

Not bad for a rebuilding team.

Rose Bowl

Matchup: No. 4 Michigan (10-2) vs. No. 1 Southern California (11-1)

Site: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.

When: Tomorrow, 4:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 2, 7

Line: Southern California by 6 1/2

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