Trojans have little trouble stating case for national championship
Posted: Friday January 2, 2004 12:37AM; Updated: Saturday January 3, 2004 1:26AM
PASADENA, Calif. -- This time, USC didn't need to put a 50 on the scoreboard to prove its dominance. In fact, it was only the second time all season the Trojans had won a game by fewer than 20 points.
Only it didn't seem that way watching it.
It's not that Michigan didn't play like a No. 4 team in Thursday's Rose Bowl, and it's not like the Wolverines failed to put up a fight.
But the Trojans, despite facing their toughest adversary to date, simply did what they always do in the course of their 28-14 victory: make football look like as effortless an endeavor as tying one's shoes.
"From the jump, we said it doesn't matter what team we play," animated USC defensive lineman Omar Nazel proclaimed in the aftermath of his team's split championship-clinching victory. "As long as we go out and execute to the fullest, no one can stop us."
Unfortunately, we'll never know whether Oklahoma or LSU could have proven otherwise.
But after watching the way quarterback Matt Leinart and receivers Keary Colbert and Mike Williams picked apart the Wolverines' highly-regarded secondary, after watching the Trojans rack up nine sacks against a Michigan offensive line that had allowed 15 all season, after watching their defense hold All-America running back Chris Perry largely in check, AP voters will have no trouble justifying their expected opinion.
"I think we stated our case to being No. 1," said USC defensive end Shaun Cody, "by beating them so handily."
A year after Ohio State won a national championship with an old-school, grind-it-out offensive philosophy, USC basically did the polar opposite, deluging the Wolverines with a quick-strike passing attack that produced four touchdowns in less than five minutes of possession time.
But as impressive as Leinart was finding one open receiver after another, as dazzling as Colbert was making one-handed touchdown catches, the biggest statement the Trojans made Thursday was that LSU and Oklahoma aren't the only ones that play some mean defense.
Yes, Michigan was able to move the ball, with quarterback John Navarre throwing for 271 yards and Perry rushing for 85. But seemingly every time the Wolverines started to sustain a drive, the Trojans would come up with a big play to send them backward.
On several occasions it involved cornerback Will Poole slashing into the backfield on a corner blitz, but for the most part it was a matter of USC's "Wild Bunch II" defensive line overpowering what is usually an impenetrable Wolverines offensive line.
In doing so, the Trojans forever extinguished the theory that a Pac-10 defense couldn't possibly be as physical as their Big Ten counterparts.
"What is this term 'smash-mouth?'" asked USC All-America defensive end Kenechi Udeze, who finished with three sacks. "It's not like because they're from the Big Ten they were going to come come in and pick us up and throw us around.
"People thought we were a 'finesse' line. Half of us on the defensive line can't even spell finesse. We were offended."
Offensively, the sheer array of weapons at the Trojans' disposal -- and the way coordinator Norm Chow so masterfully uses them -- had the Wolverines trying unsuccessfully to guess what might come next. If it wasn't the deep ball to Colbert or a slant over the middle to Williams, it was tailback Reggie Bush flashing out of the backfield or one of the tight ends coming from out of nowhere.
And, in their signature moment of the afternoon, it was Williams taking the reverse from Bush and, as smoothly as if he did this every day, zipping a pass to Leinart streaking down the sideline for a backbreaking 15-yard touchdown that made the score 28-7.
"The system is not as complex as some people think," said Leinart, who went 23-of-34 for 327 yards and three scores. "We have so much speed at every position. There's always going to be an open guy in our plays. It's just my job to get the football to the right people."
Sounds easy enough, putting a collection of sick athletes on the field and letting them run wild, right? The truth is it's not. Just ask Mack Brown.
Fact is, what Pete Carroll's team did, both in this game and all season, only looked easy. The effort that went into it was actually quite remarkable, and it's only fitting they'll be rewarded with a spot atop the final AP poll when it comes out late Sunday night.
As for that other poll -- that, of course, is a whole other can of worms.
After the game, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr reaffirmed that he would adhere to the coaches' pre-existing agreement with the BCS to vote the Sugar Bowl winner No. 1, but there remains to be the slight possibility that other coaches will, as Carroll put it, "rebel."
For their part, the Trojans, as they've been for most of the last month, were universal Thursday night in their insistence that they really don't care that they'll probably have to share their title.
"What matters to me is we accomplished everything we could possibly accomplish," an extremely amped-up Carroll said in his postgame news conference. "No one will ever be able to take that away from us no matter how the polls go."
Of course, when asked whether his team would welcome a chance to play the Oklahoma-LSU winner a week from now, he lit up like a Christmas tree, as did an assortment of players.
"It would be great to play Oklahoma next week," said Nazel, "but I don't think they'd really want to see us."
Certainly not if the Trojans plan to make that one look this easy.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.