Trojans won't second guess fourth-down play

There was never any question what USC would do on fourth-and-2 with the game on the line, writes Bruce Feldman.

Originally Published: January 4, 2006
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN.com

PASADENA, Calif. -- Dumbest question asked in the USC locker room after the game: Did you guys give any thought to punting on that fourth-and-2? After all, the Trojans had the ball at the Texas 45-yard line with 2:13 remaining and were clinging to a 38-33 lead. That's usually the call, right? Play it smart. Force the other team to make the big plays.

4th Down
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesThe officials prepare to measure the result of the fourth-down play ...
Puh-leese. If you think that way and you figured that's what the Trojans were planning, then you don't follow USC football. The program's motto might as well be "Go for it!" The Trojans approach fourth downs like they're on a 3-on-1 fast break.

The choice for the play call was almost as much of a given. Even some of the USC Song Girls probably knew what was coming: 27-Power -- a smashmouth play that has become as much a staple of USC's amazing recent run as police escorts and pretty blonde hangers-on.

The design of the play is fairly simple: Center Ryan Kalil blocks down on the nose guard; the guard and tackle combination-block off that on the inside man while the other guard pulls around. Then, LenDale White, USC's punishing 235-pound tailback, follows through to the hole and makes his read. It had worked brilliantly all night. White had hammered his way to three rushing touchdowns already in the game on 27-Power, slashing through gaps that seemed to get wider as the game wore on.

It also had been a perfect fit for White's downhill running style. He finished the night with 124 yards on 20 carries in what likely was his final college game, since White is leaning toward bolting for the NFL.

"When it's time to go, we're gonna run 27-Power," USC assistant head coach Steve Sarkisian said. "[Texas] knew it. We knew it. There was no doubt in anybody's mind."

OK, well, there was a hint of doubt. Meaning the Trojan coaches toyed with the idea of going against their tendencies and running a naked bootleg with QB Matt Leinart, giving him the option of a two-way go. But in truth, the Trojans knew if they were going to go for it, they had to go with what they had ridden all night.

4th Down
Donald Miralle/Getty Images... and the reaction of the Texas players says it all.
This time, though, the Longhorns came up with the perfect counter. Their front submarined the blockers, slowing down the flow of the play, and strong safety Michael Huff -- calling his own audible -- blitzed, knifed through a gap and left White inches short of the first down.

"We didn't really account for them," said White, "and I just put my head in there and tried to get there, but I just came up short."

The sometimes combustible White was calm as he recounted the play and the way USC's 34-game winning streak was halted. He seemed at peace with the how the game went down. He knew there was no shame in losing when the other team just rises up and makes a play. "I tried to leave it all out there, man," he said with a smile. "I really did."

USC head coach Pete Carroll, hardly the second-guessing type, said he has no qualms about the play call or the decision not to punt. "That's the way we've been doing it for years," he said, adding, "that you go with your best jump shot from the top of the key."

Carroll explained it was hardly a calculated risk. "You make that first down and you win the football game," he said. "You're going to have to kick it anyway. How far are you going to punt it, 20 yards? It's not even close. The decision, in our way of thinking, is you're going for it all the time."

The decision was a fitting way for the Trojans to see their amazing streak come to an end, with the team stiff-arming conventional wisdom and opting to go down swinging.

"This is really what we wanted," said guard Fred Matua. "We want to be out there and play it to the fullest. We don't play to just stay on top. We play to win, man.

"We're not about putting the game in our defense's hands. We want to take it from them on our terms. If we go down, we're going down fighting, not just hopin' and wishin'. This is how we play at SC, and any high schooler that wants to play like this, man, come on through. We don't play scared."

Said Pat Ruel, USC's O-line coach, "I'm disgusted because this team has given so much and it came down to this play, but hey, I guess it's time for us to start a new streak. That's all."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.

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