USC gets some Sugar with Miami loss

Originally Published: November 1, 2003
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN The Magazine

LOS ANGELES -- The roar, loud enough to be heard all the way to New Orleans, came with 13:05 remaining in the third quarter. Some clever scoreboard operator with a perfect sense of timing pushed a button and there it was on the massive big screen located in the east end zone of the aged LA Coliseum: a Virginia Tech player -- nobody here cared whom -- running back a kick against Miami on the other side of the country. And then the news that mattered: the Hokies were on their way to a convincing upset of the second-ranked Hurricanes.

USC defensive tackle Shaun Cody sneaked a peak. "I can't say no," he said.

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Nobody at the Coliseum -- not the Trojans. . . not the crowd of 82,478. . . not even late, semi-great Washington State -- could pretend they didn't do some serious scoreboard watching Saturday evening. So provided with the necessary emotional jolt, USC turned a a 5-point lead into a 43-16 victory over the Cougars and officially became a central figure in the chaos that is the Bowl Championship Series.

By night's end the third-ranked Trojans (soon to be No. 2 in the polls) were playing tag-team with the Pete Carroll play-one-game-at-a-time company line issued in the postgame locker room and the raw emotions of the moment. The emotions won.

"Are you the best team in the country?" asked a Los Angeles columnist to USC defensive end Omar Nazel.

Nazel hesitated. "That's really a question I can't answer straight up," he said. "All I'll say is we're playing the best football we've played." Another pause. "If you want to say it, go ahead. But I'm not going to say it."

Later he would. Told he could fill out an imaginary ballot for the top two teams in country, Nazel blurted, "I guess USC and Oklahoma."

Sunday's polls, followed by Monday's BCS rankings, will do most of the talking. But this much is clear: with the exception of undefeated and No. 1 Oklahoma, few, if any, teams are playing at a higher level than the Trojans.

USC buried sixth-ranked Washington State on the scoreboard, in the running game (222 yards for the Trojans -- against the third-best rushing defense in the nation, minus-25 for the Cougars), and in the turnover game (zero for USC, three fumbles lost and one interception for Wazzu). The Cougars did the rest, committing an Oakland Raiderish 15 penalties for 115 yards and sending two snaps high over the outstretched hands of punter Kyle Basler.

Washington State did throw for 345 yards, but that's about it for bright spots. But Matt Kegel and injury replacement Josh Swogger had to throw, thanks to a USC defense that didn't allow a Wazzu runner to gain more than 20 yards for the game. Meanwhile, USC's LenDale White averaged more per gain (12.4 yards) than the Cougars had as a team. Is that a good thing?

White, a freshman from Denver, finished with 149 yards and one touchdown on just 12 carries. And the Jason White of the west coast -- quarterback Matt Leinart -- completed 17-of-31 for 191 yards and three TDs.

"Matt has jumped right into the national scene," Carroll said.

So has USC, thanks to losses Saturday by Miami and to a lesser extent, Georgia. The Trojans will no doubt replace the one-loss Hurricanes in the two-spot of both polls. What happens in the BCS rankings, both short and long term, is another matter.

Of course, don't expect Carroll to spend any time crunching quartile numbers.

"I have absolutely no energy for that," he said. "None. Zero. It's a nice system and all that. I have no idea how it works. One day I'll get somebody to tell me how it works, because I don't know."

He'll learn. Too much is at stake for USC and Carroll, who is now 8-0 in November, to feign BCS ignorance. The Trojans are now part of a small herd of one-loss teams that could wind up in the Sugar Bowl and the BCS championship.

"I don't know," said Carroll, "we're a pretty good team. I just don't want to go there (discuss the BCS). I don't give a hoot about it."

Instead, Carroll would rather talk about his defensive line, his offense (a school-record four consecutive games of 40 points or more), even the part in his hair. Anything but the B-word.

Not everyone is buying into USC's performances.

"Their defense is not that special," said Washington State's Kegel. "I thought their offense carried them."

Of course, Kegel was sacked five times, so perhaps that explains his confusion.

USC now gets an off week before traveling to Arizona, followed by home games against UCLA and Oregon State. Go 3-0 during that stretch and who knows what might happen.

"We kind of control our own destiny," said Leinart.

For now, "kind of" is the perfect description.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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