USC the picture of California cool
LOS ANGELES -- They haven't announced the coach of the year for this season, but USC coach Pete Carroll has sewn up marketer of the year. Anyone can sell sand flies to the Iraqis, or impudence to the French. But Carroll succeeded in selling his USC Trojans on not playing for the national championship.
Try selling Enron stock in Houston, or gridlock in Manhattan. That's what Carroll has sold to his Trojans.
As USC celebrated its 52-28 defeat of Oregon State on Saturday, its fate rested in Atlanta, Kansas City and hard drives across the country. The Trojans knew that they had finished 11-1, and that they had won the Pacific-10 Championship outright, but that's all they knew.
USC, No. 2 for weeks, may not qualify for the Sugar Bowl. In the aftermath of the Trojans' victory, they didn't know that Oklahoma would get hammered or that LSU would run all over Georgia. Even so, USC may still end up in the Rose Bowl vs. No. 4 Michigan.
"Whatever happens, happens," cornerback Will Poole said. "I feel like we deserve to be there (New Orleans). Personally, I would be disappointed. There's nothing you can do about it. It's a computer. It's not people."
"I think we deserve to go," quarterback Matt Leinart said. "It's out of our hands. We did as much as we could do."
Where is the outrage? Where is the "Nobody respects us," the chip on the collective shoulder? Carroll silver-tongued it away weeks ago. He preached to his team to worry about what they could control. They bought it. Let the fans who threw sugar cubes onto the sideline at Los Angeles Coliseum rant. Let the students who chanted "Beat The Sooners!" get upset.
If necessary, the players will board the team bus and drive up the Harbor Freeway to play Michigan. One reason for the equanimity is the allure of the Rose Bowl, which the Trojans used to sign an annual lease for. They haven't been there in eight years.
"I'm not smart enough to predict the BCS rating," offensive tackle Jake Rogers said. "Growing up, I dreamed about putting on the cardinal and gold and playing in the Rose Bowl. Playing for the national championship would be a tremendous honor. But the Rose Bowl has been my dream since I was a kid."
As consolation prizes go, playing Michigan in the Rose Bowl is one very lovely parting gift. But, come on. Were the Wolverines 11-1 and facing the possibility of not playing for the national championship, Lloyd Carr would be calling for a Congressional investigation.
Carroll acknowledged his disappointment, then explained it away.
"We lost a darn game," he said, standing amid the detritus of a postgame locker room. On Sept. 27, USC lost at California, 34-31, in triple overtime. "If we hadn't lost a game, we'd be already in. We left the door open for some issue. That's why I've been able to handle this. I've felt like that the whole way through. I'm still pissed we lost a game."
If they are not going to get worked up about it, then the rest of us should. As Oregon State coach Mike Riley walked off the field, someone told him that USC might not make the Sugar Bowl. His head jerked up.
"Are you serious?" Riley asked. "I would think they are No. 2. If you make any mistake, they come down hard. It's hard for me to imagine they wouldn't be in there."
At times the Trojans' attention wavers, as it did at Berkeley. Against Oregon State, USC scored to go ahead 28-7 with 1:08 to play in the first half, and mentally headed into the locker room. The Beavers drove 80 yards for a touchdown.
At times, the offense will sputter. Leinart will see senior Keary Colbert isolated on a corner and just miss him down the sideline, or one of the three tailbacks will get stuffed, and the opposing defense will feel pretty good about itself.
But on the next play, the Trojans could break one. Or the next play. Or every next play they line up.
Freshman Reggie Bush ran for 71 yards on six carries, and caught three passes for 48 yards and two touchdowns. He made a 32-yard run to set up USC's last touchdown that will live in highlight heaven. Bush started on a sweep left, spun out of a tackle and headed to the other side of the field until someone tripped him at the 6-yard line.
Sophomore wide receiver Mike Williams caught seven passes for 59 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which came on a one-handed grab that forced 73,864 fans to say, "Oh, my God!" in unison.
Carroll called it "cool," "scintillating," and a "dream-come-true catch."
"We'll see it a million times and love it every time," he said. Except for Williams, who said, "It was a catch. Anybody who saw it saw that I could have caught it with two hands." He shrugged, not out of humility, not out of a lack of humility. He just wasn't that impressed. "I was just trying to have some fun. It's not that big a deal."
Williams sees it every day in practice. He doesn't mind being a decoy on the left side of field, allowing Leinart to throw to freshman Steve Smith on the right. Smith split two defensive backs and raced 73 yards for a touchdown.
Williams gets to work out five days a week against cornerback Will Poole, who intercepted two passes, returning one 67 yards for a touchdown, in the first half. He sees defensive end Kenechi Udeze cut across the face of an offensive tackle as if he were standing still.
It's the rest of the country, the fans who don't see USC every week, who would miss out if the Trojans don't make it to the Sugar Bowl.
"We have everything you want for a national championship game," Carroll said. "You have a big, exciting offense and a tough defense. I'm not taking anything away from LSU. If we go, we are going to go and let it rip."
They'll let everything rip, evidently, but their tongues. Carroll may be too busy selling to get mad. But there's one thing not even he can sell. If USC finishes No. 1 in the polls, and one-loss Oklahoma and one-loss LSU are in the Sugar Bowl, then not even Carroll could talk up the credibility of the BCS.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.