Doing the splits
USC handles Michigan in Rose Bowl, makes its case for national title
Posted: Friday January 2, 2004 2:36AM; Updated: Saturday January 3, 2004 1:19AM
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) -- Point made.
Top-ranked Southern California all but grabbed a piece of the national championship Thursday, laying out its case by dominating No. 4 Michigan with a 28-14 victory in the Rose Bowl.
Matt Leinart threw three touchdown passes and caught another to lead the Trojans past the Wolverines with a performance so persuasive that voters almost certainly will leave USC atop the poll.
The Associated Press' No. 1 team has never dropped in the rankings after winning its bowl, and it doesn't look as if it will happen this time, either.
"I think we just won the national championship," jubilant USC coach Pete Carroll said. "I think it's clear that we did everything we needed to."
While the Trojans are primed to win their first title in 25 years, they would have to share it. Voters for the Coaches' poll are obligated to crown the winner of Sunday's Sugar Bowl between No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Oklahoma, playing in the BCS championship game.
"He won a national championship, I'm sure of that," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said, referring to Carroll.
The Trojans were left out of the Bowl Championship Series title game because of a weaker schedule, but they felt right at home in front of a sellout crowd of 93,849.
Leinart, the game's MVP, shredded the nation's sixth-ranked pass defense for 327 yards, and the Trojans (12-1) had a season-high nine sacks and even blocked a field goal by Michigan (10-3).
The signature play came late in the third quarter when Mike Williams took a reverse handoff from Hershel Dennis and flicked an easy pass to Leinart, who jogged in for a 15-yard score that made it 28-7.
With the big lead, all the Trojans needed to do was run out the clock -- and then wait for the post-bowl AP poll to be released early Monday. But fans had their answer already, chanting "We're No. 1! We're No. 1!" during the final minutes.
Not everyone, though, considers them the nation's best team.
Oklahoma All-American defensive tackle Tommie Harris offered a mostly sarcastic congratulations.
"Good. They won the Rose Bowl," he said. "They can be No. 1 as long as we can be national champs."
The victory caps USC's return to prominence after years of mediocrity. The Trojans went 31-29 in the five years before Carroll brought his youthful enthusiasm to one of the game's traditional powers.
Fired twice in the NFL for being too soft, Carroll's style was a perfect fit in Los Angeles. After losing five of his first seven games, the 52-year-old coach is 27-4.
He has combined his aggressive defensive style with offensive coordinator Norm Chow's sophisticated passing game to create a national power.
The Wolverines allowed only five touchdown passes all year before running into USC. Keary Colbert had six catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns, and LenDale White had the other scoring reception. The Trojans needed less than five minutes on their four scoring drives.
"I felt like we could have put more points on the board," Colbert said. "But the main thing is that we won the game. We are the national champions. It's just awesome to be able to say that, 'We're No. 1."'
USC's "Wild Bunch II" defensive line put relentless pressure on John Navarre. Whenever Michigan seemed ready to mount a sustained drive, the Trojans came up with a big sack.
All-American Kenechi Udeze had three sacks, and blitzing corner Will Poole added two against an offensive line that had allowed only 15 all year.
"We just couldn't handle their pressure up front," Carr said. "We gave up too many sacks. That was probably the difference in the game."
After building a 14-0 halftime lead, USC took control on the opening drive of the second half.
Leinart capped it with a perfect 47-yard scoring pass to Colbert, who caught the ball with one hand near the 25 despite being interfered with by Jeremy LeSueur. Colbert then broke a tackle and jogged in for the score.
Michigan answered with a a 5-yard pass from Navarre to Tim Massaquoi to cut it to 21-7. But Williams' pass to Leinart put the game away.
"We've been working on it all week," Williams said. "It was a big-time play by Matt."
The first traditional matchup of Pac-10 champion vs. Big Ten champion at the Rose Bowl in three years was billed as a shootout, but it was the defenses that controlled most of the first half.
After Shaun Cody blocked a 47-yard field-goal attempt by Garrett Rivas, USC needed just four plays for their first score -- a 25-yard pass to Colbert.
Late in the second quarter, USC's defense capitalized on lucky bounce when Navarre's pass hit off receiver Braylon Edwards' foot and into the hands of Lofa Tatupu, who returned it 26 yards to the 3. Three plays later, Leinart hit White for a 6-yard score to make it 14-0.
Navarre finished 27-of-46 for 271 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Heisman Trophy finalist Chris Perry ran for 85 yards.
The Trojans last won a share of the title in 1978, when they also beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl to win the coaches' poll, while Alabama took the AP title. USC hasn't won the AP championship since 1972.
Few expected the Trojans to end that streak this season, after losing Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer to the NFL.
Leinart, who had never passed in college before this season, threw for a touchdown on his first pass, at Auburn. He helped make this offense even more dangerous than the team that won 11 games last season.
There were a few early struggles for Leinart, including three interceptions in a 34-31, triple-overtime loss to California on Sept. 27 that cost the Trojans a perfect season.
After coming back from an injury at halftime to lead the Trojans to a victory against Arizona State the following week, Leinart led USC to seven straight 40-point games to end the regular season.