Bush powers top-ranked USC toward Rose Bowl

USC's mix of enthusiasm, perspective and competitive spirit has Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and the top-ranked Trojans on the cusp of a threepeat, writes Ivan Maisel.

Updated: December 4, 2005, 11:30 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- On an afternoon of USC performances stunning in their virtuosity, the Trojans stood out as much for what they lacked as for what they achieved.

The achievements are many: a humiliation of their crosstown rival, No. 11 UCLA, 66-19; a clinching of a place in the Rose Bowl to play No. 2 Texas for the national championship; a stemwinder of a final campaign speech by Heisman Trophy candidate Reggie Bush, who rushed for 260 yards and two touchdowns.

The college football bandwidth will strain to accommodate the words spilled forth describing how the Trojans performed in raising their record to 12-0. But only when you step back and look for what wasn't in the picture at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday can you appreciate how well USC performed.

AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianMatt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Pete Carroll are headed to a showdown with Texas.
The Trojans won without quarterback Matt Leinart. Oh, No. 11 was there, all right, but not the quarterback who came into the Coliseum with a starting record of 36-1. Leinart, eyes and brain clouded by the emotions of his final college game, spent the first half doing his best imitation of Rick Ankiel.

"I was a little tighter out there," said Leinart, who rallied in the second half to at least make his numbers respectable (21-40, 233 yards, three touchdowns). "I'm not afraid to let my emotions out. I was off, obviously."

Leinart's guilty plea to showing too much of his inner self underscored the other thing the Trojans lacked Saturday, the one emotion anyone would expect them to experience: a sense of relief.

It would stand to reason that a team that had just won its 34th consecutive game and done nothing more than match expectations would seem world-weary. The weight of winning a third consecutive national championship would sit heavy on the collective shoulders of most college teams.

USC, as it proved again Saturday, is not most college teams.

After the game, Bush stood in front of the USC Band, conducting "Conquest" with a long-stemmed red rose in his teeth, proving once and for all that there is nothing the Trojan tailback cannot do on a football field.

His teammates wore Christmas-morning smiles as if they had been issued along with shoulder pads and mouthpieces.

"It's like an ice-cream sundae," said senior Deuce Lutui, a Tongan lei adorned with rose stickers around his neck. "It tastes good."

On the field, walking aimlessly, waving two fingers above his head in time with the march, coach Pete Carroll walked over to an acquaintance and said, "Why would you want to leave the field right now? Where would you go?"

If you were UCLA, of course, you couldn't leave fast enough. The Bruins were held to 275 total yards and avoided a season-low in points only by scoring two touchdowns against the Trojan backups in the final four minutes of the game.

"I'm disappointed and embarrassed," senior quarterback Drew Olson said. "We came in to put up a good fight, and the opposite happened."

It took a long time to get this right. There's not another team who can think that it should be playing. Everyone is happy now. The South is happy. The West is happy. Let's get it on.
USC guard Fred Matua on meeting Texas in the Rose Bowl
But back to Carroll. It is Carroll who is the source of this inner peace. It is the coach who manages to mix enthusiasm, perspective and a competitive spirit that hones the Trojans in on their objective with a laser-like focus.

"We proudly accept the invitation to the Rose Bowl," Carroll said in the press conference after the game. "It's everything we hope for in our program, to own the Rose Bowl. To have earned [the invitation] today, that's where we want to go. There ain't nothing better. I'm really proud of that."

The Trojans won with stunning ease. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin began assembling his gameplan with the Pacific-10 Conference statistics in hand. The Bruins came into the Coliseum last in the league in rushing defense, allowing 219.5 yards per game.

"To come out and run the first seven plays, we really felt good about our matchups in the run game," Kiffin said.

The Trojans finished with 430 rushing yards. Junior LenDale White, sore shoulder and all, rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns. The Trojans' offensive performance in general, and Bush's in particular, again proved their unparalleled versatility. Keep in mind this is the same team that threw on the first eight plays in its previous game, the 50-42 victory over Fresno State.

USC's offensive line, with three all-conference starters, swallowed the Bruins' defensive front whole. Sometimes, holes are the width of doorways. Sometimes, they are the width of garage doorways.

"We liked our center (All-Pac-10 junior Ryan Kalil) on their true freshman nose tackle (Chase Moline)," Kiffin said. "We ran the inside zone play at him. We kept running the tackle trap. The back side guard knocks him down and creates a big hole. That's the play Reggie ran for 65 yards on third-and-12."

Kiffin referred to the first play of the second quarter. The Trojans, leading 10-0, were backed up on their own 3. The UCLA defenders, like the preceding 11 teams to play USC, failed to discern from video study how fast Bush is.

Attention, Texas: whatever angle you think is appropriate to cut Bush off at the sideline, drop it five yards deeper.

UCLA free safety Dennis Keyes found that out the hard way on the play Kiffin brought up. Bush broke outside to his left, taking the play outside. Keyes took his angle and never laid a finger on Bush, who took off down the sideline to the UCLA 32. Six plays later, the Trojans led, 17-0.

With 3:24 left in the first quarter, Bush had his eighth 100-yard game of the season.

With 3:00 left in the second quarter, Bush had his second 100-yard quarter of the afternoon.

So, Reggie, how easy was it?

"On a scale of 1 to 10? Ten," he said, grinning. "It was. The O-line did a great job today. It's really about what they were able to do up front. They were able to run over them and the wide receivers were able to keep the defensive backs and the safeties out of our faces."

In the middle of Bush's press conference, Leinart walked in the door to join him. Someone asked Bush, "What did this do for the Heisman?" Leinart, without pausing as he climbed into his chair said, "It won it for him."

The junior finished the regular season with 1,658 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. Though his stepfather, LaMar Griffin, told ABC that it was time for Bush to take his game to the next level, Bush made no such pronouncements. He is aware of the joy Leinart experienced by returning for his senior season.

"First and foremost, it's what he feels," Leinart said. "It's what he wants to do. Try not to let everyone persuade your decision. You get a lot of advice from both sides."

Later, in the locker room, Bush said watching Leinart this season made him understand the benefits of returning.

"College football is so fun right now," Bush said. "Everybody is enjoying it. You only get to go to college once. I think about that. We'll see."

Now comes 10 days of award shows and banquets. Then the practices will begin. From the day the first preseason rankings came out last summer, USC and Texas have been an arranged marriage, scheduled for Jan. 4 in the western cathedral of college football. After two seasons of BCS upheaval, all is right. The two best teams in the country will play for the national championship in the Rose Bowl.

"It took a long time to get this right," USC guard Fred Matua said. "There's not another team who can think that it should be playing. Everyone is happy now. The South is happy. The West is happy. Let's get it on."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE