USC puts a bright face on Rose

Anger at Sugar exclusion becomes a chance to link with past, get title share

College Football

January 01, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PASADENA, Calif. -- When the final Bowl Championship Series standings were released in December and the computers had somehow kicked top-ranked Southern California out of the Sugar Bowl, the reaction was understandable.

There were calls to scrap a convoluted BCS system that was intended to produce a clear-cut national champion, but will accomplish just the opposite.

How legitimate could it be if the No. 1 team in the traditional polls of writers/broadcasters and coaches didn't qualify to be one of the two teams in the designated national championship game?

What cardinal and gold sin did the Trojans commit to justify taking them down a notch after they closed out the 2003 season with a string of blowout victories?

Then a thought began to dawn on USC fans like a beautiful Southern California morning. This was not the end of the world, after all. It might actually be the best of both worlds for their resurgent football program.

The BCS snub created an opportunity for the Trojans to kick it old school -- to play in the same bowl game that validated all eight of the school's previous football national championships and still come away with a share of the national title.

USC will try to take advantage of that opportunity when the Trojans face Big Ten rival Michigan today in the 90th Rose Bowl. The No. 4 Wolverines don't figure to be a pushover, but the Trojans are a solid favorite to improve to 12-1 and punctuate another impressive chapter in the school's storied football history.

Could it really get any better than this? That's the way even-tempered coach Pete Carroll saw it soon after it became apparent that his team's Sugar Bowl bid might be undermined by the esoteric formula that determines strength of schedule.

He had warned his players not to get too caught up in a situation that was beyond their control, so it wasn't hard to persuade them to take the high road after they got low-bridged by the BCS.

"It's been a special set of circumstances that brought us to the Rose Bowl, and we've accepted it from the beginning," Carroll said yesterday. "It's just a great thing to be involved in. USC vs. Michigan. Great setting. It's going to be a great day.

"Things worked out beautifully for the University of Southern California. We love playing in the Rose Bowl, and we're playing in the Rose Bowl with a chance to win the national championship. You can't ask for more than that."

That's not just a nice-guy coach putting a happy face on a disappointing situation. That's what Carroll began selling to his team the moment the final BCS standings left USC 0.16 of a point out of the Sugar Bowl, instead putting No. 2 Louisiana State and No. 3 Oklahoma in.

"Once we found out we were playing in the Rose Bowl, the coaches said, `Hey, this is our shot, and we get to do it at home,' " said USC defensive tackle Shaun Cody. "All of our players are excited about that."

The news was met with an initial burst of public indignation in Southern California, but it was quickly followed by a burst of nostalgia. This, after all, is what the Rose Bowl used to be all about -- the Pac-10 vs. the Big Ten.

"It has taken us back to something we've all held very dearly," Carroll said. "The return to that tradition is something that we all really like, and we need to protect that."

If the Trojans are determined to take advantage of this unique opportunity to live in the past and the present at the same time, the Wolverines are just as determined to avoid being trampled underfoot by a USC team that scored fewer than 31 points once in 12 regular-season games.

The big-play combination of second-year Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart and all-everything receiver Mike Williams is enough to keep defensive coordinators up at night, but there is a lot more to the USC offense than two players. Three young running backs combined for nearly 2,000 yards, giving Southern California impressive balance.

Still, stopping Leinart will be Job One.

"He looks like a very smart quarterback," said Michigan defensive end Larry Stevens. "As a defense, you can't let him pick you apart back there. He can cause some major problems, but we're not looking at him like Joe Montana or anything. We're looking at him like any other quarterback. We're preparing like we would for any other game ... to win."

Michigan's offensive attack features resourceful quarterback John Navarre and All-America running back Chris Perry. If the Wolverines can move the ball on the ground against one of the most talented defensive fronts in USC history, they might just turn the Sugar Bowl into the undisputed national-championship game after all.

Perry rushed for 1,589 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2003 and averaged 165 yards in his last three games. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist and the winner of the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back. But the Trojans' defense apparently isn't planning to do anything out of the ordinary to try to stop him.

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