Michigan, USC ready for Rose Bowl's stage
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- The Rose Bowl can give come-hither looks with its history, its tradition and its physical attributes. So, too, can Michigan and USC. Both teams reached the velvet ropes of the BCS Championship Game only to be turned away and directed westward. Both teams have had to parry questions about motivation and desire in the wake of their season-ending defeats.
"You just don't get it," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "The kids are jacked up. The coaches are. The fans will be. Had you not asked the questions, it would have been left behind."
"There's something special about New Year's Day," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said, "something special about going into that incredible setting, the Arroyo Seco, the mountains. You know you have an opportunity to play in a very, very special game. It's not really hard to sell it."
"Those are awesome football games," Carroll said of the No. 1 vs. No. 2 game that the Trojans aren't playing in. "But they are not better. They are not better than what this is. The day you play, the game you're playing, the team across the field from you, that's the whole world. It doesn't matter what trophy they hand you . Look at the explosion of the Boston College victory [Saturday in the Meineke Car Care Bowl]. That kid kicks the field goal and they win and the team goes crazy. On that moment, on that day, it was the biggest thing in the world."
There's little reason to believe Michigan will play the same way it played in losing to USC, 28-14, in 2004, and Texas, 38-37, in 2005. As Carr said Sunday, "This team defensively is a much better team than we were three years ago." Michigan has allowed only 14.6 points and 43 rushing yards per game.
The Michigan offense is much better, too, thanks largely to the switch to a zone-blocking scheme for the running game from the traditional gaps Michigan has created for decades. The new scheme has been a godsend for junior tailback Mike Hart, a skilled reader of a play as it develops.
The new running game, and Hart's ability to stay healthy, transformed the Wolverines into the best rushing team in the Big Ten (189.2 yards per game) and, Carr added, the running game "marries up" with the passing game better than it did three years ago. The offensive line crumbled against USC in that Rose Bowl, allowing nine sacks of quarterback John Navarre.
"They give you so many different blitzes," Carr said. "They're going to bring the two inside guys. They're going to bring all their safeties, all the secondary except the wide corner. They're going to drop eight and rush three. They give you so many different looks, a lot of different personnel packages. They are very, very talented, very, very quick."
"I think we've struggled with that a little bit this year, in part because our defense is so young," middle linebacker Oscar Lua said Saturday, according to a transcript. Lua is one of two seniors listed as a starter or co-starter on defense (he started three games, and sophomore Rey Maualuga started nine). " It might have been why we had such tight games earlier this year. But the emphasis has always been there."
Lua alluded to an increase in turnovers later in the season. The Trojans forced 10 in their past five games. There's no reason to think USC can just flip the sack-and-turnover switch against Michigan junior quarterback Chad Henne. The Wolverines lost only 10 turnovers this season, evidence of Henne's increased maturity.
Carr said that Henne has all the "measurables," but only after he listed the attributes that warm a coach's heart.
"I think first of all [a quarterback] has to be tough mentally, as well as physically, and Chad Henne is a tough guy," Carr said. "He has to be intelligent. He has to have all the understanding to communicate . He is not a guy that's very emotional, but he is a fiery, intense competitor, and you wouldn't necessarily know that unless you've been around him."
Michigan has more quickness than its previous two Rose Bowl teams brought to Pasadena, if not as much as USC will bring Monday. The Wolverines have an edge in experience, too. The question to be answered is not so much whether the teams will bounce back emotionally from their regular-season-ending losses. It is whether they will play like the teams that reached the threshold of the BCS Championship Game.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.