Ashlee Simpson had just finished belting out a halftime number called La La when a balmy night in South Florida turned suddenly cold. Lusty boos cascaded on the black-clad, acid-reflux-afflicted singer. Don?t take it personally, Ashlee. Your critics at the Orange Bowl--some of them, anyway--were disgruntled Oklahoma fans who knew that your pal Casey Cobb was friendly with USC junior quarterback Matt Leinart. They were trying to get back at him any way they could. The Sooners? defense sure wasn?t laying a glove on the guy. Seriously, were those Oklahoma?s starters out there on Tuesday night? Reading coverages like a motorist studying a billboard, bouncing on the balls of his feet behind nearly flawless protection, Leinart completed 13 of 23 passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions. In the first half.
By then, of course, the game had been decided and millions of viewers had channel-surfed over to The Amazing Race. So comprehensive was Southern Cal?s domination in this 55?19 rout, so cool and lethal was Leinart, so airtight and opportunistic was the defense, so elegant was the play-calling of offensive coordinator Norm Chow, that it seems mean-spirited to point out the national championship game didn?t come close to living up to its hype. Let?s face it: The Game of the Century, as some had taken to calling the matchup of 12?0 teams, was not even the Game of the Week.
Grant it this, though: The Orange Bowl beat the hell out of last year?s title game(s). Remember that muddle? Three nights after USC defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl to lock up the AP?s No. 1 ranking, LSU upset Oklahoma in the Sugar, clinching the top spot in the BCS. It was college football?s New Year?s Irresolution.
In taking the Sooners behind the woodshed, in racking up 525 yards of offense, in limiting extraterrestrial tailback Adrian Peterson to 82 yards on 25 carries, the Trojans effectively muzzled Auburn partisans who?d been spoiling for a share of the national title. Yes, the unbeaten Tigers held off Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl on Monday night (sidebar). But to any person who saw both games, there is only one rational conclusion: USC is in a league of its own--and the Trojans might be there for a while. With only six seniors in the starting lineup, USC has the makings of a dynasty. Heisman finalist Reggie Bush and fellow tailback LenDale White are sophomores, as is playmaking wide receiver Steve Smith, whose three touchdown catches included one he somehow cradled with one hand while a defender tugged on the other. For sheer acrobatics, that reception was matched only by the one-handed touchdown grab of tight end Dominique Byrd, a junior. Rangy wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett, a true freshman, was the third Trojan to catch a scoring pass on Tuesday night. The entire offensive line returns next year, as will most of the defense.
What about Leinart? After the 2004 Heisman winner threw five touchdown passes on Tuesday night, his stock took another jump. Will the Orange Bowl MVP join Cal?s Aaron Rodgers and Utah?s Alex Smith in migrating early to the NFL? Posed that question after the game, he said, ?Right now I still plan on coming back.? Leinart reflected on the possibilities should he return, including playing for a third straight national championship, in USC?s backyard. Next year?s BCS title game is in the Rose Bowl. Concluded Leinart, ?It?s going to take a lot for me to leave.?
The stunningly lopsided score disproved the pregame notion that the two teams were evenly matched. ( USC was a 11?2-point favorite.) Certainly the two programs bore an uncanny resemblance to each other. Both are among the Top 10 in alltime victories; USC had 10 national titles entering the game, Oklahoma seven. Both are led by energetic, telegenic coaches who are charismatic recruiters, who are strongly rooted in defense and who awakened sleeping giants in a hurry. Bob Stoops won a national title in his second year at Oklahoma; Pete Carroll shared one in his third at USC. Both offenses are well-balanced and high-powered--they were before the Orange Bowl, at any rate--as is to be expected when the quarterback and star running back are Heisman finalists. ( Peterson and Sooners quarterback Jason White, the 2003 Heisman winner, finished two-three in this year?s balloting.) The look-alike defenses--?Like playing against ourselves,? noted White--each featured a standout lineman named Cody, the Sooners? Dan and the Trojans? Shaun.
How would USC stop Peterson? How would it get pressure on White? Wasn?t Oklahoma?s offensive line among the finest in the country? USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron spent the week before the game tossing bouquets in the direction of the men his unit would be facing. ?They?re awesome, man,? Orgeron said. ?Seven sacks all season? That?s unheard of!?
But in the privacy of a meeting room in the Trojans? hotel, with the game just 30 hours away, Orgeron--the excitable Louisiana native who would begin his new job as Ole Miss coach the day after the Orange Bowl--dispensed with diplomacy. Yes, he agreed, the right side of the OU line, Outland Trophy winner Jammal Brown at tackle and Davin Joseph at guard, was excellent. His assessment of the left side was less charitable. As for center Vince Carter, whom Orgeron had publicly all but christened the next Mike Webster: ?He ain?t gonna block [Trojans tackle] Mike Patterson. If Patterson?s gettin? blocked by that guy, he better not come to the sideline.?
Orgeron said this while seated in front of a laptop, poring over video clips of Oklahoma?s favorite plays and muttering observations:
?Here?s Adrian on a power play. They?re kickin? out. Ooh, he hits the hole quick!?