The scene inside the victorious USC locker room confirmed what we already knew: Pete Carroll was born to coach the college game. Before his players made special teams coach Dennis Slutak rap the first verse of the Snoop Dogg single Drop It Like It's Hot and before they whooped it up and boogied down around a handful of Orange Bowl officials, they delighted in the sight of their 53-year-old head coach performing a dance he calls the Trojan. No wonder Carroll didn't stick in the NFL. The man has too much fun. � He dances, he takes part in seven-on-seven passing drills, he leaps from USC's 10-meter diving platform to break up the monotony of two-a-days. Four days before his regular-season-ending matchup with crosstown rival UCLA, Carroll demonstrated yet again why he belongs on a college campus. Despite the fact that this rivalry, the so-called Silicone Bowl, is in intensive care--the Trojans went into last Saturday's game having won their previous five against their neighbors from Westwood by a combined score of 181--85--there was Carroll, missing only a letter sweater and megaphone, gushing about the significance of a game "for all the bragging rights in Southern California!"
His players lacked the thespian skills to pretend that the 6--4 Bruins would be anything but one final tackling dummy to swat aside on their road to the Orange Bowl, site of this season's BCS championship game. UCLA, observed tight end Alex Holmes, a taciturn senior, would be "just another game."
For a change, though, UCLA was more than that. After yielding a mind-bending 65-yard touchdown run to Reggie Bush on USC's second play from scrimmage, the Bruins found ways to hang around, often flummoxing quarterback Matt Leinart, who for the first time in 25 career starts did not throw a touchdown pass. Were it not for the right foot of Ryan Killeen (five field goals) and the ankle-breaking cuts of Bush (204 yards on 15 carries, two touchdowns), the nation's top-ranked team would not have escaped with a 29--24 victory.
But escape the Trojans did, becoming the first USC team to finish the regular season 12--0. The following day their Orange Bowl bid was made official. It was the best news of a news-filled week in Troy. USC was coming off a 31point rout of Notre Dame that had led to the firing of Fighting Irish coach Ty Willingham. Had it been unsporting for Carroll to call a fake punt that led to a score late in that blowout? Would Norm Chow, USC's Heisman-minting offensive coordinator, be offered the vacant head coaching job at Stanford? If Chow left, would Leinart, a junior, make himself eligible for the draft? But those questions tended to obscure a much larger one: Is Southern California on the verge of doing what was supposed to have been impossible after the NCAA whittled scholarships to 85 a decade ago: building a dynasty? The Trojans have now won 21 straight, and 32 of their last 33. After running the table they'll return in 2005 with a team that should actually be better. If you didn't beat them this year--the Bruins were one of five teams to stay within 11 points of USC--you may have missed your best chance for a while.
"All I can say is that we're gonna be very scary next year," said Leinart, drained and smiling after the game. "You don't want to get ahead of yourself, but it's exciting to know that with all the young guys we have, next year we could be even better."
So Leinart is planning to come back? "Absolutely," he said.
"Yeah, but you can't trust a quarterback," cracked junior linebacker Lofa Tatupu.
for giggles, let's say Leinart wins the Heisman this weekend, leads his team to its second straight national title and has a change of heart. Figuring his stock will never be higher, he goes pro. What then? The Trojans would be quarterbacked in '05 by John David Booty, the Louisianan who skipped his senior year of high school to come to USC. Booty would likely be pushed by Mark Sanchez, a 6'4", 211-pound senior from Mission Viejo High, who has verbally committed to SC, choosing the Trojans over Ohio State and Texas.
Whoever calls the signals will do so behind a line that returns virtually intact and in front of a backfield that will include Bush and his bruising fellow tailback, LenDale White. Both will be juniors. In fact it's easier to point out the impact players who won't be back in 2005: senior defensive linemen Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson, a pair of All-America candidates who spent much of Saturday afternoon in the Bruins' backfield.
Will there be a dropoff? Not necessarily, says junior defensive end Frostee Rucker. "Someone's gonna be the next Shaun Cody. Someone's gonna be the next Mike Patterson. That's what we do here."