- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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PASADENA, Calif. -- USC didn't have to be magnanimous this time. A year ago, when the Trojans finished the regular season No. 1 in both polls, they never lashed out at the goofiness of a system that denied them a place in the BCS Championship Game. They never complained about the asterisk that hovered over their accomplishment.
On a chilly Saturday evening in the Arroyo Seco, USC struggled to put away crosstown rival UCLA. An offense that usually reaps touchdowns had to settle for five field goals from kicker Ryan Killeen. The Trojans didn't seal the 29-24 victory until free safety Jason Leach intercepted Drew Olson in the final minute. Even then, cornerback Kevin Arbet had to recover Leach's fumble.
Unlike last season, USC is 12-0.
Unlike last season, USC is No. 1 in the polls and BCS Standings.
And unlike last season, the executive director of the bowl hosting the championship game, this year it's the FedEx Orange Bowl's Keith Tribble, could go into their locker room and unofficially invite them to play.
"We finally got all we deserved," said the hero of the game, Trojan sophomore Reggie Bush. "I'm ready to fly out to the Orange Bowl right now."
The feeling of accomplishment in the locker room could be seen in the earhole-to-earhole grins. A team that began the year with a lot of inexperience never lost a game.
"Oh, yeah, definitely this feels better than last year," defensive lineman Shaun Cody said. "There were a lot of question marks: the offensive linemen, the defensive backs. There were questions everywhere. They played big all year. Everyone has jelled at the right time."
Two starting offensive linemen returned. The receivers were so young they couldn't get back to the huddle without dropping breadcrumbs. Yet the Trojans never lost. They never lost their poise, and they never lost sight of their goal.
For that, the Trojans have two players to thank. There's junior quarterback Matt Leinart, the Heisman Trophy candidate whose tremendous statistics pale alongside the contribution he made as the leader of a young team. If Leinart wins the Heisman, he will beat the guy he called "the best player in college football."
That would be Bush, who ran 65 yards for a touchdown on the second play of the game. On his sixth carry, he ran 81 yards for a touchdown. They weren't trick plays, just pages from the meat-and-potatoes portion of offensive coordinator Norm Chow's cookbook.
Bush rushed 15 times for 204 yards, caught six passes for 73 yards, returned two kickoffs for 39 yards and two punts for 19 yards. That's 336 all-purpose yards on 25 touches.
Those numbers don't include the two blocks he laid on blitzing Bruin linebacker Wesley Walker on the same first-quarter play, allowing Leinart to complete a 12-yard pass that set up Killeen's first field goal. They do include the four-yard punt return that began when UCLA defensive back Dennis Keyes laid a killshot on Bush, who just bounced away. Keyes then tried to wrap Bush's legs from behind. That didn't work, either.
"(People are) always so surprised when he does something," Leinart said, "But we're used to it. He does it in practice on a daily basis. ... I've been saying all year that he's the best player and he deserved the trophy. He made a statement that he deserves to go back to New York and be a part of the (ceremony). Like Mike Williams, he can change the game on one touch of the ball."
Leinart is much more effusive talking about Bush than he is talking about himself. Bush is just as self-effacing. Asked which of his two long touchdowns he favored, Bush said, "I don't know. I was just trying to make a play for my team."
So he steals his lines out of a Chip Hilton book. He doesn't expect to win the Heisman and doesn't think he deserves it. He said he would be happy just to get invited to New York. But Bush finally relented.
"I think I might have shook up the ballots a little bit," he said.
This USC team might not be as good as the Trojans of a year ago. The offensive line remains a work in progress, and the receivers, as much as they improved, still had three drops against UCLA.
But this team started out No. 1, took every team's best shot, and still won every game it played. That's why there will be no such confusion regarding USC and the Orange Bowl. The Trojans will most likely play Oklahoma in a matchup of teams that began the season 1-2.
The night before the BCS announcement would be different this year.
"I'll get a good night's sleep," USC linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. He looked down at the Orange Bowl patch hanging off his shoulders. If USC doesn't go to Miami, Tatupu added, "They are going to have to come back and get this off my neck."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maybe last year's team was a little better than this year's model, but there's no denying USC deserves a spot in the BCS Championship Game.