The glamour boys we know about. We know that before he became the unofficial mayor of Los Angeles, Matt Leinart was a plump, cross-eyed youngster. We know that Reggie Bush went to high school with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, and that it is thanks to Vince Young that Texas coach Mack Brown has 50 Cent on his iPod. � While we've been hearing for months about the obscenely prolific offenses of Texas and USC, which are averaging 50.9 and 50.0 points a game this season, respectively, we know far less about the guys on the other side of the ball--the wet blankets who want to keep the Jan. 4 national championship game at the Rose Bowl from becoming a scoring orgy. � Which 12-0 team has the better defense? The Longhorns put up superior numbers--such as a No. 4 national ranking in scoring defense (14.6 points per game) to USC's 27th (21.3)--but the Trojans, winners of 34 straight and looking for an unprecedented third consecutive national championship, faced more teams with potent offenses than Texas did this season. Which Griffin (Michael or Cedric) plays safety for the Longhorns, and which plays cornerback? It's a trick question: Like all Texas defensive backs, they are swift, ornery and interchangeable. Which USC defense will show up, the one that allowed 42 points by Fresno State on Nov. 19 or the one that gangster-slapped UCLA all over the Coliseum in a 66-19 win a fortnight later?
Lawrence Jackson sees that last question as an invitation to deliver a brief lecture on elephant rage. "I saw this on the National Geographic Channel," says the Trojans' sophomore defensive end, who had three sacks and four forced fumbles in that whipping of the Bruins. "When an elephant commits an act of violence toward a human, that elephant is never the same around people. It's the same with an athlete. Once you experience continuous success, you're much more dangerous because you know what it feels like. You know how to get there."
This is Jackson's way of saying that he and his fellow defensive players are much more dangerous now than they were in, say, August, when they played the 98-pound weakling to the USC offense's Charles Atlas in preseason practice. "For the first week and a half," Jackson recalls, "they did whatever they wanted against us"--and from that point on the public "kind of targeted us as the weak spot of the team." The defense wasn't weak. It simply wasn't as strong as the defenses of the previous two title teams. For instance, first-year starting tackles Sedrick Ellis and LaJaun Ramsay played well this season, but they didn't create anything near the havoc wreaked by last year's starters, Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody, who were picked in the first and second rounds of the NFL draft, respectively. "How do you replace all those sacks?" asks coach Pete Carroll. The Trojans didn't--their sacks dropped from 50 in 2004 to 32 this year.
At the start of the season USC's linebackers were perhaps the most talented unit in the country, but five of them missed significant time because of injuries, forcing Carroll to play freshmen Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga. Though the newcomers did more than hold their own, putting teenagers on the field is risky. Further taxing the cohesiveness of the defense was a rash of injuries in the secondary: The Trojans have gone through left cornerbacks the way Spinal Tap went through drummers. Josh Pinkard, a converted safety, is the fourth player to occupy the position since the spring.
Like Spinal Tap's 1992 album, Break Like the Wind, the 2005 Trojans defense was entertaining but flawed. On Oct. 1, USC needed its biggest comeback in 31 years to beat Arizona State, which led 21-3 at halftime. The Trojans won 38-28, but future opponents took note of how the Sun Devils' Sam Keller picked apart the secondary in the first half. Two weeks later it was Notre Dame's Brady Quinn repeatedly victimizing USC's corners and then carving up the entire defense on an 87-yard touchdown drive that gave the Irish a short-lived 31-28 lead.
While USC showed vulnerability in those games, it also displayed a resiliency that has become the team's trademark. "After the Notre Dame game," says Jackson, "a lot of people looked inside themselves and asked, Is there anything else I can do to help the team?" That soul-searching, and four games against weak Pac-10 opponents, resulted in a stretch of solid defensive play that suddenly came to an end against Fresno State, which rolled up 427 yards in a 50-42 loss to the Trojans. Citing two short fields that USC handed the Bulldogs late in the game, which the visitors turned into touchdowns, Carroll has come to see that result as an aberration, a performance to be flushed and forgotten.
He wasn't exactly a bundle of stress after practice last Saturday, leaning back in his swivel chair and answering questions while tossing a baseball toward the ceiling of his office and catching it. If he seemed serenely confident going into his third straight national title game, it could be because:
?It is his third straight national title game. The Longhorns, on the other hand, are in terra incognita.
?While the Trojans rank only 39th in total defense (the Longhorns are No. 6), they lead the nation in the category closest to Carroll's heart: takeaways, with 37. ( Texas has 25.)
? Carroll and his staff are masters of game-planning. "With a month to do what he does [best]," says defensive end Frostee Rucker, "I can't wait to see what he comes up with."