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While 2004 Heisman winner Matt Leinart might have enjoyed a reputation as the better passer going into the game--he would complete 29 of 40 passes for 365 yards--Young was far and away the more effective leader of the two. This was the guy who in August, along with junior tailback Selvin Young, studied videotape of preseason practices and the next day got in the face of any teammate who hadn't been pulling his weight. Vince is also the guy who in the huddle at Missouri in October, with the Longhorns facing third-and-30 at their 33 in a 21-13 game, told his linemen, "All I need is enough time to make three or four sandwiches." (After biding his time in the pocket for a while, Young scrambled 34 yards for a first down.) Cracking a joke or inspiring, cajoling and bullying teammates comes easily. "It's pretty much my calling," he explained. "You accept [that calling], or you get smacked in the face by the Man upstairs."
WHILE USC was uniformly respectful of the Longhorns in the run-up to the Rose Bowl, some Trojans had been annoyed by the bravado emanating from Austin. For those who weren't, the USC coaches left clippings of stories containing the remarks on a table in the lounge of the football office, including a New York Post article whose headline was a Young quote: WE'LL BEAT USC. Young had turned in a particularly memorable performance at a Dec. 5 press conference, first lobbying for the Heisman, then announcing that should he fail to win it, he would be motivated to "show the world they made the wrong decision." Asked if he would be intimidated by USC, Young laughed, then replied, "Intimidated by what?" A moment later he noted that the Trojans "haven't seen the different guys on our team who are gangster." So compelling did Carroll find these comments that he arranged for snippets from the press conference to be shown during a team meeting.
Most USC players were perplexed rather than angered by the gangster remark. If they had known him better, they would have realized that it was just Vince being Vince--following his calling, reminding his teammates that they had nothing to fear, that they belonged in the national championship game. The difference between the '05 Longhorns and the '04 Sooners, he said, was that Oklahoma quarterback Jason White had failed to "keep the guys going." While White had allowed the Sooners to surrender, Young implied, he would keep Texas in the game by the force of his will.
After the game Carroll said that he had never coached against a player as totally commanding as Young had been. "He probably made us miss a dozen tackles tonight," Carroll said. In truth, that estimate seemed low by at least a dozen.
SIX DAYS before the game USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin sat in one of the team's conference rooms; the names, heights and weights of Texas's defensive starters were printed on a marker board. "Look at their secondary," he marveled. "They go 205, 205, 205, 200. It's amazing how alike they are, and they can all flat-out run." Then he made a prediction: "By the time these 11 guys are done [with college], I bet nine of them will be in the NFL."
The most talented player in that elite group is senior safety Michael Huff, a former All-Big 12 sprinter who started 49 of 50 games in his four seasons and scored five touchdowns, four on interceptions, one on a fumble return. Co-defensive coordinator Duane Akina has described him as the smartest, most instinctive player he has ever coached. One of the worst-kept secrets of the week was that Huff, the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's top defensive back, would bear primary responsibility for containing Bush. It was almost eerie, how at peace Huff appeared to be with that matchup, how much he seemingly--could this be possible?--looked forward to it. Asked if anyone on the Longhorns' roster could keep up with number 5, he replied, "Yeah. Me."
Save for a spectacular 26-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run on which he dived into the end zone, Bush took a backseat to LenDale White, whose thunderous inside runs (he rushed for 124 yards and three touchdowns), coupled with Leinart's precision passing, got the Trojans back into the game. In the second half USC ran off 28 points and never punted. But on fourth-and-one at the Texas 45 with 2:13 left, Carroll opted to go for it. Gain one yard, win the game. "We just blitzed everyone," Huff, who helped stuff White inches shy, said later. Young would have one final chance.
After Young moved the Longhorns 48 yards in nine plays, the 2005 college football season came down to a single snap. Out of the shotgun Young looked to pass. "I went all the way through my progression," he recalled later, "but there was nobody open." Linebacker Collin Ashton and corner Josh Pinkard blitzed, but they were picked up by the Texas front, which didn't allow a sack all night. "The defensive lineman was giving me the edge"--that was Frostee Rucker, who dived vainly at Young's ankles--"so I took it down."
Young took the ball down, then he took the Trojans down.