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November reign (cont.)

Posted: Sunday November 26, 2006 2:35AM; Updated: Sunday November 26, 2006 2:37AM
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Pete Carroll and the Trojans are now a win over UCLA away from making a third straight trip to the BCS title game.
Pete Carroll and the Trojans are now a win over UCLA away from making a third straight trip to the BCS title game.

They hurt the Irish on Saturday night in typical Trojan fashion. Booty did his best Palmer/Leinart impersonation, standing tall in the pocket and picking apart the Irish defense, throwing two touchdowns and running for another in the game's first 19 minutes and finished 17-of-28 for 265 yards and three scores. All-America receiver Dwayne Jarrett, banged up at the time of the Oregon State game, turned in an All-America performance, catching seven passes for 132 yards and three touchdowns, not to mention a dazzling one-hand sideline grab. And the defense, so average earlier in the season, bottled up Notre Dame stars Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija until the point where the game was out of reach.

Looking at the statistics, you might have believed the game was dead even -- 404 yards for USC, 404 yards for Notre Dame -- but that's not how it played out. USC stormed out to a 21-3 lead in early in the second quarter thanks largely to the Booty-Jarrett tandem. Booty and the Trojans then proceeded to fall apart for a quarter, with the quarterback throwing two interceptions and the Irish blocking a USC punt deep in Trojans territory.

But when Notre Dame failed to take full advantage, scoring just seven points off the miscues, USC slammed that door shut in the same exact fashion as it started the game -- with Booty throwing it deep and Jarrett catching it. Their 43-yard touchdown connection with 8:21 left would prove the dagger.

"Stats are for losers," said Weis. "We have no excuses -- we lost to a better team."

Weis' guys also lost to a better team earlier in the season by a similar margin. That team was Michigan. Ironically, it's those two teams that are now battling in the court of BCS opinion for a spot opposite Ohio State in the national championship game.

Carroll declined to lobby on his team's behalf afterward. "Let the system figure it out," he said.

OK -- maybe just a little lobbying. "All I'll say is we've played a heckuva schedule. ... I think we're a pretty good team right now. We'll play anyone, anywhere and take their best shot."

It's not that Michigan and Florida don't have their own compelling arguments for Glendale. In the age of the BCS, everyone has an argument. Wolverines backers will undoubtedly point out that their only loss was to the No. 1 team in the country, compared with the Trojans' loss to Oregon State. Gators backers will point out that their team won the toughest conference in the country if they do indeed beat Arkansas in next week's SEC title game.

But if USC takes care of business next week at 6-5 UCLA -- no gimme, mind you -- they will get the bid to Glendale largely for two reasons: Their overall body of work (wins over nine bowl-eligible teams, including the champions of two BCS conference divisions and a 10-2 independent) is superior, and they're playing their best football of the season at the right time: the end.

It's become a near-annual occurrence for USC to struggle a little early before kicking it up another notch in November. It's a particularly beneficial quality when you're being judged in what is essentially a weekly beauty contest. Carroll and Booty are right that something seemed to click in the second half of that Oregon State game, but the Trojans' recent surge is the product of several more tangible facets.

Start with the base fact that this was a young and inexperienced team -- one that had to replace two Heisman winners and a boatload of other stars -- and was bound to have inevitable growing pains. Throw in the fact that injuries further depleted the ranks, particularly at tailback, fullback and in the secondary, forcing some even younger players to be thrown into the fire.

But if you really want to know why USC is playing better, look no further than Jarrett. He is, without question, the most accomplished receiver in college football, having now caught a Pac-10 record 39 touchdown passes, and as he showed yet again Saturday night, he can take over a game. But for several weeks in the middle of the season, Jarrett was either sidelined or limited by a shoulder injury.

He said he finally felt better in the Stanford game -- the one right after Oregon State. Coincidence? Hardly.

"We had a couple tight games [early in the year], and a lot of people really questioned us," said Jarrett. "But we always believed in ourselves. We know we definitely belong with the best. It's finally all starting to come together."

It usually does when Notre Dame comes to town.

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