It had to end the way it did, with the game-winning touchdown coming in the final seconds. And that touchdown had to be scored by Vince Young, who owns the Rose Bowl, who has dominated it for two years now.
Young ran eight yards for the winning score with 19 seconds left -- on fourth down, of course -- and Texas beat USC for the national championship in a game that lived up to every ounce of the anticipation that's been building since August. Down 38-26 with less than five minutes to play, the Longhorns scored, stopped the Trojans on downs, then scored again to win.
The stunning comeback ended USC's 34-game winning streak and denied the Trojans a second straight national championship -- a third straight if you're the kind of person who thinks Enron's accountants were straight shooters.
This was supposed to be the Reggie Bush show. And for just a moment, it looked like it was going to be just that. But that changed the very next moment. As you must know by now, the game turned on a hideous mistake by Southern Cal's Heisman Trophy winner at the end of a dazzling run.
One play into the second quarter, USC led 7-0 and had the ball on its own 45, second and 10. Bush took a screen pass from Matt Leinart at the line of scrimmage and set off on one of his trademark jaunts, juking a tackler out of his jock at the Texas 45, outrunning another as he crossed the 35 and making a third miss at the 25 before being hauled down by Drew Kelson and Aaron Ross around the 20.
As he was going down in the arms of the two defenders, Bush tried to lateral to teammate Brad Walker. A better lateral to a teammate who had any idea it was coming might have worked out, though it still would have been dumb. This one went off the surprised Walker's hand and fell to the ground, Texas recovering at the 18.
So much for USC threatening to go up 14-0. Texas drove 62 yards and kicked a field goal, and the game was on.
Bush was never quite the same after that, maybe because the fumble rattled him or maybe because Texas just did a great job of bottling him up, though LenDale White, the Trojans' other great tailback, had a big game.
Bush ran for 82 yards and added 95 on six receptions, but only once more did he make a play for the highlight reels, a 26-yard touchdown run that featured a sideline high-wire act and a somersault into the end zone.
Bush's lost fumble was the second time in a row that USC had gone deep into Texas territory without scoring. On their previous possession, their second of the game, the Trojans went for it on fourth-and-inches at the 16. Leinart's quarterback sneak fell short. In a game like this one, failing to score when you have the chance can be fatal.
And, as USC also learned, going for it on fourth down and failing, twice, can be fatal as well. The Trojans bookended their first-quarter fourth-down failure with one in the endgame that handed Young a short field.
Talk about fatal. This was a guy in the process of putting together one of the greatest performances against live opposition in college football history.
A year ago against Michigan, Young had rushed for 192 yards and four touchdowns and completed 16 of 28 passes for 180 yards and another score, plus an interception. By the time Texas took over at its own 44 with 2:09 left in the game, down 38-33, he'd beaten that, running for 176 yards and two touchdowns and hitting 26 of 33 passes for 237 yards with no interceptions.
On Texas' previous possession, Young had driven the Longhorns 69 yards in 2:35, hitting five of six passes for 44 yards and running for the rest, including a 17-yard touchdown. The Trojans gave no signs of being able to stop him.
That's what made USC coach Pete Carroll's decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Texas 45 so puzzling, much as Carroll and his players defended it in the aftermath.
"You make that first down and you win the football game," Carroll said. "How far you're going to kick it right there, kick a 20-yard punt? It's not even close. The decision, in my opinion, in our way of thinking, you're going for it all the time."
I spend a lot of time hammering NFL coaches for their timidity, their unwillingness to take reasonable risks such as going for it on fourth down when the situation warrants it. And I admire Carroll's go-for-it attitude, which has served USC well over the last three years. And I don't know if this is cause or effect, but USC's kicking game is awful.
But there has to be a happy medium between the typically risk-averse NFL coach and Carroll's hellbent approach. Carroll pooh-poohs a 20-yard punt like 20 yards is nothing, but I like Southern Cal's chances a whole lot better if, rather than diving for the pylon and scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 19 seconds left, Young is going out of bounds at the 20.
And just so you don't think I simply disapprove of any fourth-down decision that doesn't work, I'll tell you that I thought Texas coach Mack Brown made the right call on the Longhorns' first possession when he went for it on fourth-and-1 at the USC 48. It didn't work out, but it was a good risk.
I wonder if Carroll's decision-making process offers some insight into why college coaches tend to fail in the NFL. It was less than a decade ago that Carroll, now on a historically significant run of success at Southern Cal, took over an 11-5 New England Patriots team and went 10-6, 9-7 and 8-8 before getting fired. He was also dispatched after going 6-10 in his only season as coach of the New York Jets in 1994.
"You're going for it all the time" is a great philosophy on an uneven playing field. In almost every game it plays, USC has vastly superior talent to its opposition. When you have better players than the other team, of course you go for it, put pressure on them, force the opposition to make plays. Most of the time they're not going to make those plays because they're not as good as you are.
But when the other team's just about as good as yours, as it is every week in the NFL and as it was for Carroll in the Rose Bowl, you have to do a better job of risk assessment.
All of which isn't meant to take anything away from Texas. Not only did the Longhorns make that play on defense, they made the plays on offense, thanks to Vince Young, to drive 56 yards for the winning score. And it's not unreasonable to believe that if USC had opted for that 20-yard punt, Texas would have made the plays for a 76-yard drive.
And here's a footnote: Young should have had more time to work with, and thus so should the Trojans, who took over on their 30 with 19 seconds left and no timeouts, having wasted their last one before failing to stop Texas' two-point conversion following Young's go-ahead touchdown. Two plays later, the game was over.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Young had completed a short pass to Limas Sweed, who was pushed out of bounds at the Texas 38 after a seven-yard gain. For some reason, the head linesman signaled for the clock to keep running, though it should have stopped with 6:37 remaining.
USC, leading 38-26 at the time, wasn't going to complain, and Texas must not have noticed. The next snap came 27 seconds later, so the Trojans should have had 46 seconds at the end, a very different thing from 19. Just one of those little things.
So the Trojans are denied a second straight championship. Not a third. USC and its fans have been talking a lot about a "three-Pete" -- as in Pete Carroll, you see -- because the Trojans were No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll in 2003.
But the 2003 national champion was LSU. The Bowl Championship Series is a lousy system, but it's the system USC signed up for. You can't agree to play for a championship under one set of rules, then, when you don't win the championship, say, "Well, we won the championship under these other rules."
Unless you think the accountants at Enron were straight shooters.
But as lousy as the BCS is, it coughed up a game for the ages. How could this game have possibly lived up to the hype? We've known since the summer that, barring a major upset, USC and Texas would be playing in January for the championship.
This year was a supersized version of the way the Big 8 and Big Ten used to be in an earlier generation. You knew on the Fourth of July that the season was a mere formality, that the Big 8 champion would be the winner of the Oklahoma-Nebraska game and the Big Ten champion would be the winner of Ohio State vs. Michigan.
2005 was all about USC and Texas, and when they finally got together, well, it just had to be a dud, didn't it? But it was a classic. A seesaw affair, with Texas trailing by seven, leading by nine, and trailing by eight and then 12 before coming back to win. It was even a bit of a defensive struggle early, just so there was a little something for everyone.
And, it must be said, ABC did the game justice. The artistic camera angles the network employs on its NBA Finals coverage was nowhere to be seen. The sound mixing was excellent, letting the home audience hear and feel the reactions of the huge, evenly split crowd. The focus was kept refreshingly on the game. My prediction that the mugs of 20 celebrity USC fans would fill TV screens by halftime was off by about 18.
The one sour note, it pains me to say, was Keith Jackson, the best college football announcer in history. Jackson is 77 years old and at the end of his contract, and he has been saying he's leaning toward retirement. That, I'm afraid, would be a good idea.
Though his distinctive, this is what college football sounds like voice is as good as ever, Jackson sounded so befuddled at times Wednesday that I found myself wondering if he could even see the game. He's the best there ever was and a new year won't sound the same without him, but it's time for him to say goodbye.
"I feel like Joe," he joked near the end of the game, referring to Penn State coach Joe Paterno's comment after the Orange Bowl, "I'm too old for this." Jackson's folksy humor, like his voice, is still there, but, alas, he was right.
If Jackson does call it quits, he couldn't have picked a better game to be his last. Vince Young made sure of that.
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