- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- So where are the grief counselors? The hollow-eyed looks? What happened to lying awake at nights, counting how many times Vince Young jumped over their beds?
It has been three months since the USC Trojans lost the chance to win a third consecutive national championship, three months since they lost after 34 straight victories. They lost a game they had been expected to win. They lost with 19 seconds to play. They lost after some national network wondered aloud, and incessantly, whether they were the best team ever.
It wasn't just that USC lost 41-38 to Texas in the BCS Championship Game. It was the way it lost. No one put more athletic talent on the field than the Trojans -- that is, until Young made Southern California look like a directional school. The Longhorns' quarterback threw for 267 yards, rushed for 200 yards and broke about 200 tackles.
USC had a 12-point lead with 4:04 to play. It had a five-point lead with 20 seconds to play. Twenty seconds, not even the length of a Dick Vitale sentence. And with one Young stutter step, it all vanished in the right front corner of the end zone.
The Trojans had history in their hands, and they let it slip through. A victory in the Rose Bowl would have raised the possibility of a challenge to Oklahoma's record of 47 consecutive victories, the Holy Grail of college football records.
That's the kind of loss that would stick with most people. After Penn State lost to Alabama, 14-7, in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno blew the following season while mourning the loss.
"I have talked about getting angry with myself when I lose. Nothing of the kind ever compared to this loss," Paterno wrote in his 1989 autobiography.
"I beat up on myself not only immediately but for months afterward, halfway into the next season."
Lose a game like that, and the coaches are liable to remind you for the next eight months. Coaches have been known to post losing scores in the weight room as a motivational ploy. They want their team to be so sick about what happened that the players will do whatever it takes to get that damn score out of their heads.
It doesn't take long to figure out the toll the Rose Bowl loss took on USC. You don't have to be around the returning Trojans very long to measure it. Watching one spring practice at Howard Jones Field lays it out.
Not a trace.
"I actually just watched it on TV the other day for the first time," junior linebacker Keith Rivers said. "I was sitting around and decided to take a look."
"I didn't watch the last couple of minutes," Rivers said.
Denial -- always a good tool. But Rivers said that's not what he meant.
"We just missed a lot of tackles and plays we should have made," he said. "Instead of 2 yards, they were getting 4 or 5 or 10. Sometimes, the game doesn't go the way you want. Everybody played hard. I guess you can kind of rationalize it. You just put it behind you. We're still a good team. If we're going to lead next year, we got to get back to work."
There's not a trace of anguish in Rivers' voice. The history major might as well be outlining the Compromise of 1850 for one of his professors.
"You gotta bounce back," offensive tackle Sam Baker said. "You can't dwell on the past. That happens in the Super Bowl, too. All the [losing] teams in the Super Bowl struggle the next year. That's not going to be us. We're going to go back and work just like we've always worked. It's really not about one game."
And that is where the mark of Pete Carroll can be seen on these Trojans, as clear as the lightning bolt on Harry Potter's forehead. The Rose Bowl, as big as it was, amounted to one game, same as the previous 34. USC did the best it could do, and for the first time in nearly three seasons, it wasn't enough.
"The way we handled that fits right hand in hand with our philosophy," Carroll said after practice the other evening. "I think our system, the way we do stuff, the way we talk, from day one, A to Z, prepares us to deal with whether you win or whether you lose that game. Not that we accept it, any of it. Not that we would think we were the greatest thing in the world if we won. To me, I think the mark of a great championship player, or a great championship program, is the ability to continue to show who you are and not be affected by what's going on around you, or in the past, or what you're heading into."
Carroll has made the Trojans think like recovering alcoholics -- one day at a time. Get better today. Compete today. Win your job today. His players have bought into it.
"He does a great job, always in the mind-set of a positive direction," senior center Ryan Kalil said of Carroll. "We came back, and he called a meeting. You would have thought we won that game, the way his attitude was, just kind of the way he was glowing about it. There's nothing we can do about it. It's over with, and the only thing now we can do is go back to our basics, starting with our offseason."
That philosophy might be easier to instill in Los Angeles. All the distractions that might tempt a player also tempt the fans. The city, much less the entire state, didn't go into mourning the way an Oklahoma did a year ago. The Trojans don't run into disappointment everywhere they turn. The spotlight is diffused. That helps Carroll achieve his goal.
But even if it didn't, Carroll is adamant that one night won't disrupt what he hopes to accomplish.
"I'm not going to let that game affect us, if there is anything I can do about it," he said. "We were about two inches away from everybody thinking the opposite of what happened. It was just a lunge here, a lunge there, this or that, that separates the difference. They're [Texas] great champions. We played our tails off. We had plenty of chances to win the game. We made a team play great. That's what I've always said, if they are going to beat us, make them play great. If that's what it took, we'll move on."
It takes enormous willpower to quiet the competitive juices and not run those missed tackles over and over again on the video. Carroll said he waited several weeks to cue up the loss.
"I was real disappointed in the game," he said. "We had plenty of chances to win the football game. It could have happened a million ways. I didn't like what we did on defense in the game in general. I was just disappointed we didn't handle them better. And I certainly think their quarterback had a great deal to do with it. He was awesome, and he looked like he looked in a lot of other games. Normally, we take great pride in making people looking normal. He looked extraordinary.
"All that?" Carroll summed up. "We're up by 12 with a few minutes left and didn't win the game, you know?
"That's the part that would drive most people nuts," I said.
Carroll looked at me for a moment, and his one-sentence reply revealed how, for all the big-picture thinking, there's a part of him that understands exactly how Paterno felt.
"So you're saying you can't tell if it is or not, huh?" he asked.
Maybe a few of those nights have been sleepless after all.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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