THE PLAY starts with such promise for Charles Burnley. A gunner on Oregon State's punt coverage unit, he gets a great release off the line of scrimmage and beats his blocker. Booking down the field, he slices through the mist in Corvallis on this November 2004 night, his Beavers trailing Southern Cal by a point early in the fourth quarter. All week Burnley's coaches had hammered home the dangers presented by Trojans return man Reggie Bush, who at this moment is ranging far to his right to field a punt most players would let roll out-of-bounds.
Burnley is bearing down on Bush, has him pinned against the sideline and sized up for a zoo hit, a SportsCenter-caliber undressing. But it never happens. With the gunner four yards out and closing, Bush feints right--toward the sideline--but Burnley isn't buying. So Bush jukes toward the open field, and Burnley takes the bait. Then Bush spins back to the right, and the gunner whiffs, hurtling past the USC player, his arms outstretched like Superman.
Essentially, Bush has eluded a tackler in a phone booth, but he's still got trouble. Skirting the sideline, he is hemmed in by a half dozen Beavers. This time Bush reverses the order of his fakes--left, right, then an explosive move back to the outside, to daylight. This is the burst that wrong-foots his pursuers, buckling their knees, immersing them in some unseen Class III rapid that leaves them at war with their own momentum, reaching vainly upstream.
Bush makes those six moves in a space of five yards, in little more than two seconds. Seven seconds after that he is in the end zone, celebrating a 65-yard punt return. USC wins 28--20.
"Sometimes I go back and watch myself [on tape]," says Bush, a 6-foot, 200-pound junior. "To be honest, I'm not really conscious of what I'm doing while I'm doing it. Even after, I don't really remember what I did."
THE TROJANS' undefeated run to the national championship last year can be attributed in part to the Reggie Factor, which has corollaries that speak to the futility of trying to contain Bush--the first of which Burnley is now familiar with: Life isn't fair. You can do everything right, be in perfect position to stop him, and Bush will still hurt you.
"I think he's the best player in college football," says the best player in college football, USC quarterback and 2004 Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, passing judgment on his teammate. "With his ability to change a game in one play, to make a defense look silly, to be a threat to score every time he touches the ball, there's no one else like him. He's the best."
"He's a tailback on one snap, a receiver on another," says Bob Gregory, defensive coordinator at Cal, the last team to beat USC, in September 2003. "They'll put him in the slot or motion him out of the backfield to try and get a mismatch."
" Bush can hurt you so many ways," says Arizona coach Mike Stoops. "You're more conscious of him than you are of Leinart."
Corollary II: Even when it looks like he's not in position to hurt you, he's probably going to hurt you. Says Trojans coach Pete Carroll, "He's such a dynamic force that you have to know where he is, whether he's getting the ball or not. You have to watch him and do something about him."