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At the risk of killing the exhilarating, even therapeutic, buzz that USC generated for itself with a 32--18 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan on Monday, could there have been anyone in the Trojans' cardinal and gold who didn't find himself considering what might have been? As giddy as they were over dismantling the Wolverines, the Trojans and their fans might also have been wondering if movie producer and USC alum George Lucas, the grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses parade, could create some of his cinematic magic and allow the Trojans to travel back in time, to their emotionally scarring 13--9 loss to UCLA early last month on the very same field.
As they exchanged their helmets for Rose Bowl championship caps in the cool of the Pasadena evening, the USC players had to know that if they had produced against UCLA even a fraction of the all-around excellence with which they overpowered Michigan, they would be preparing to play for an even greater title this Monday night in the BCS championship game. "It's disappointing because we know we can play with anybody," said coach Pete Carroll, "but at the same time, winning the Rose Bowl is a very satisfying feeling."
It had to be a bit maddening as well. Where had the Trojans who showed up on New Year's Day been during an underwhelming 10--2 regular season? Where was this calm, confident John David Booty, the USC quarterback who threw for 289 yards and four touchdowns in the second half against Michigan? Where was this marauding Trojans pass rush, which hounded Michigan quarterback Chad Henne relentlessly and sacked him six times (21/2 by blitzing linebacker Brian Cushing, the defensive MVP of the game)? "Oh, man, I'm going to ask myself that question 100 times," said USC center Ryan Kalil, "but it doesn't do you any good."
The Trojans much preferred to concentrate on their performance against the Wolverines, which was solid, efficient and, in the case of junior wideout Dwayne Jarrett, downright spectacular. Jarrett, voted the offensive MVP of the game, caught 11 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns, the second score coming on a 62-yard pass play that essentially snuffed out Michigan's hopes for a comeback after the Wolverines had cut the USC lead to 19--11 early in the fourth quarter. Jarrett twisted defensive backs into pretzels with double moves, making them look like college kids covering an NFL receiver, which he will very soon be. "Great players make big plays in big games," said Booty, "and Dwayne's a great player."
While the Trojans felt a sense of redemption with the victory, the loss deepened the wound the Wolverines (11--2) suffered in their 42--39 loss to No. 1 Ohio State in their regular-season finale. The two schools used the long layoff after the devastating ends to their regular seasons to do some emotional repair work. USC was particularly humbled by the way UCLA had shredded what had been a stellar offensive line, putting constant pressure on Booty and so thoroughly rattling his protectors that the Trojans were flagged for five false-start penalties. Three of those calls went against senior tackle Kyle Williams, who was so crushed by his mistakes--and the criticism he received from bloggers and fans--that he abruptly left the team for a day.
At the time, the team said his absence was for "personal issues." After the Rose Bowl, Williams said, "It was a Kyle day. I took some Kyle time." Although he says he never planned to quit the squad permanently, it did take Williams's father and friends and the USC coaching staff to help persuade him to end his leave after one day. Carroll gave him the book The Inner Game of Tennis and urged him to read the parts that dealt with handling the stress of competition. The Rose Bowl victory, in which Williams worked to keep Michigan's All-America defensive end LaMarr Woodley away from Booty, helped Williams forget about his performance against the Bruins. "I could probably replay the UCLA game in my mind until I'm 80, but I'm not going to do that," he said. "I'm just going to think about this one."
The Wolverines' collective psyche was just as fragile in the wake of their Ohio State loss. It wasn't just that the defeat had cost them a spot in the national championship game; the Buckeyes had also made them question their identity as a dominant defensive team by rolling up 42 points and 503 yards, more than double Michigan's average yards allowed over the first 11 games (231.5). Some Wolverines watched the Ohio State game tape repeatedly, looking for flaws to be corrected, while others took the opposite approach. "I watched it once," says linebacker David Harris. "Any more than that would have been too painful."
The Rose Bowl wasn't only a test of which team could more effectively deal with its recent past, it served as an indicator of which has the more promising future. Michigan and USC will be among the favorites for next season's title. "It's probably the biggest bowl game for next year, and everyone knows that," said Wolverines running back Mike Hart. Several of Michigan's key juniors have indicated they plan to return for their senior seasons, including Hart, Henne and tackle Jake Long. Sophomore receiver Mario Manningham will be back as well.
For the Trojans, although Jarrett is expected to turn pro, Booty and All-America tackle Sam Baker have said they plan to return for their senior years, meaning USC could have seven starters back on offense and 10 on defense. Their Rose Bowl victory might just propel the Trojans to the preseason No. 1 ranking for 2007. "I told the guys that next season began tonight," said Carroll. In other words, Trojans, forget about what might have been and think about what could be.