- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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A couple of weeks after the UCLA defense held USC to one offensive touchdown, Trojans quarterback John David Booty still hadn't solved the pressure that the Bruins put on the Trojan offense. UCLA sacked Booty twice, knocked him down several other times and so discombobulated the Trojans offensive line that it committed five false-start penalties.
The 13-9 loss canceled USC's return to its third consecutive BCS National Championship Game. Booty played the game over in his head a few hundred times. Then he treated it like a Rubik's Cube that had too many colors in too many places. He set it down on the coffee table and walked away.
"I kind of had to finally let it go and not worry about it anymore," Booty said Thursday in a press conference in Beverly Hills, Calif. "I've got to focus on what we've got going now."
What USC faces Monday in Michigan's defense may look uncomfortably familiar. The Wolverines' defensive line, as the Bruins' did four weeks ago, can break down an offensive line without the help of a blitz. Michigan, as UCLA did against USC, can leave a running game broken down on the side of the road.
In other words, the task for the Trojans offense is simple. It must prove that it can handle the pressure that it failed to handle on the same field a month earlier.
"UCLA was putting a lot of pressure on the quarterback," Michigan defensive end LaMarr Woodley said. "... It definitely gives you encouragement when you see guys play your position, doing some of the things that you do. You kind of get an idea in the end that, 'I can do the same thing they've done.'"
Woodley referred in particular to UCLA junior defensive end Bruce Davis, who made USC offensive tackle Sam Baker look as if his legs were encased in concrete. Woodley, like Davis, has a great first step. In addition, he has two things that the 6-3, 230-pound Davis doesn't: an extra 39 pounds and the 2006 Lombardi Award.
"You don't see that type of size in our conference," USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said, referring to the Michigan defense and the Pacific-10, respectively. "Our conference is more of a speed conference, not as big and physical. We don't play a lot of great front sevens. That's just been the Pac-10 for a long time, and you see that in the [NFL] draft, too. There's not a lot of D-linemen that come from the Pac-10."
Woodley will be there Monday, as will tackle Alan Branch, All-Americans both. They are the biggest reason that Michigan finished second in sacks per game at 3.42, which adds up to 41 for the regular season.
UCLA gummed up the USC offense not only by pressuring Booty, but by shutting down the running game (55 yards, 29 carries). The Wolverines have proven proficient at both. Even after Ohio State rushed for 187 yards in its 42-39 victory, Michigan still led the nation in rushing defense, allowing 43 yards per game. The average per carry of 1.86 yards led the nation, too.
It should be noted that Booty didn't fall apart against the Bruins. He completed 23-of-39 passes for 274 yards. His one interception came because of a remarkable physical effort by linebacker Eric McNeal, who tipped the ball at the line, pirouetted and dived under the ball at the UCLA 20 with 1:10 to play.
"In one sense, there were some good things about that [game]," Kiffin said of Booty's experience, "going through that and getting back up and still taking us down there at the end.... He still hasn't had what a 'bad quarterback game' is, where a guy throws four picks and it's a disaster."
Still, as Booty said, "We want to get this taste out of our mouths."
USC comes into this game wanting to redeem itself and its season, as does Michigan. Both teams suffered narrow losses to archrivals. Both teams performed in aberration to their previous 11 games. The Michigan defense gave up 42 points to Ohio State. The Wolverines' pressure proved a half-step too slow to stop Buckeye quarterback Troy Smith.
Booty, as talented as he is, is not Smith, who didn't stand still for the Wolverines or any other defense.
"If he was a scrambler, we'd probably still blitz him," Michigan outside linebacker Shawn Crable said of Booty. "I won't say that it [standing in the pocket] makes it easier, because he's a good quarterback, but when someone is standing back there, that's where he's at. I think he's a good quarterback and I'm looking forward to playing him."
USC may take solace in seeing UCLA's defensive collapse against Florida State in the Emerald Bowl. The Seminoles' 45-27 victory lends credence to the notion that not only did UCLA play well, but that the Trojans played flat. USC played UCLA after three consecutive important games: Oregon, California and Notre Dame. As the noted football analyst Daniel Powter said, they had a bad day.
Michigan's goal is to provide another one.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.