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Bush in a landslide (cont.)

Posted: Friday December 9, 2005 12:22PM; Updated: Friday December 9, 2005 5:51PM
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No one will soon forget that performance against the Bulldogs, with Bush time and again taking a handoff, juking at least one defender out of his shoes and often changing directions (most notably stopping inches short of the sideline before completely crossing field to score a 50-yard touchdown.) Against the Bruins, Bush looked like a man among boys, gaining 220 yards in the first half and twice leapfrogging UCLA cornerback Marcus Cassell.

"Those were some of the best plays I've seen in a couple years," said Stoops. "Some guys can just get to the perimeter fast and beat people, but he understands defenses. The way he cuts, the way he finds holes -- you don't see too many guys that can do that."

Bush's evolution into a complete running back was not by accident. It began as soon as 31-year-old Lane Kiffin took over as offensive coordinator for departed Norm Chow last spring. Chow, long known as a passing guru, was the one who originally found ways to involve Bush in the passing game last season, but USC's highest rushing ranking nationally under Chow was 33rd. Kiffin, defying the critics that said Bush would never be an every-down back, elevated him to starting tailback before the season. With the help of White and a physical, veteran offensive line, Kiffin, who played quarterback at Fresno State, crafted the nation's No. 4 rushing offense.

The first glimpses of the new Bush could be seen against Oregon on Sept. 24. With Leinart struggling in the first half and the Trojans falling behind 13-0, Kiffin handed it to Bush a then-career high 20 times and watched him score on a 38-yard run on the second play of the second half. Against Arizona State the next week, Bush carried 17 times for 158 yards, almost all of it after halftime. Against Notre Dame, he scored a career-high three rushing touchdowns. Finally, with the season down to its last two games, Kiffin put aside any last reservations about wearing down his superstar, handing it to him a combined 47 times.

"We had total belief he was an every-down back," said Kiffin. "It wasn't that he'd never proven it -- he'd never not proven it because he'd never had a chance to before this year."

The Heisman ballot I turned in on Monday night read: No. 1 Bush, No. 2 Young and No. 3 Leinart. I seriously considered replacing Leinart with Notre Dame's Brady Quinn, who has almost identical numbers to the USC quarterback, but Leinart made arguably the two gutsiest plays of the season -- a 61-yard pass to Dwayne Jarrett on fourth-and-9 and a game-winning sneak, both against the Irish.

According to Kari Chisholm, whose annual voting projections on StiffArmTrophy.com are usually deadly accurate, I was hardly alone. As of Thursday, 88.7 percent of the voter ballots he'd solicited had cast their first-place vote for Bush, 78.3 percent had tabbed Young second and 59.2 percent had placed Leinart third.

According to Chisholm, Bush will likely claim 82 to 86 percent of the possible points, giving him a reasonable chance of breaking Ricky Williams' all-time record (85.2 percent). Such a lopsided finish might not seem appropriate considering how close Young was just two games ago (his lackluster showing against 5-6 Texas A&M on Thanksgiving weekend probably didn't help), but it's befitting of Bush's stature as one of the most gifted running backs the game has seen.

"He's like a Barry Sanders/Marshall Faulk/Gale Sayers," said Stoops. "It looks effortless to him."

In the end, filling out the ballot felt just as easy.