The prestige and tradition that are synonymous with the Rose Bowl have prevented this year’s version of the storied game from being dubbed as a consolation prize for the Michigan Wolverines and the USC Trojans. Despite the fact that both teams have to talent to be playing for all the marbles (and some still argue that Michigan should be), the honor of playing in the “Granddaddy of Them All” just can’t be diminished. Lloyd Carr’s club did a good job of quickly putting behind them whatever disappointment there was in the aftermath of BCS selection process and have embraced the opportunity to take on an immensely talented Trojan team.
“USC has nothing to be disappointed about,” said Michigan All-American lineman and Co-captain Jake Long. “You can’t take anything away them. They could be playing for the national championship, and I feel they’re good enough to be play for the national championship. So we’ve got to go in there and play our best game. It’s going to be a struggle. It’s going to be a fun game, and we’ve got to come out with our best.”
USC’s high-powered offense, headlined by All American receiver Dwayne Jarrett, is the unit that gets most of the publicity, but the Trojan defense is just as worrisome for the Wolverines. The Pete Carroll led unit doesn’t give up many big plays, (they didn’t allow a touchdown longer than ten yards all season and have not surrendered a pass completion of longer than 45 yards since 2004), and they’ve yielded only one hundred yard rusher all season (Oregon State’s Clinton Polk).
“They are probably the best defense we will face all year,” said Chad Henne. “Tremendous speed and talent. They give a lot of ideas on defense for us to come out prepared for. It’s a multiple package. They run the 3-4, they switch things up, they switch the defensive fronts up, and they’re just very well coached. They have a great game-plan. We’re going to have to stay balanced all throughout the game and come out perform our best. It will be a definite challenge for us and we are excited to get out there and get after it.”
Henne’s backfield-mate Mike Hart echoed those sentiments. “I think it’s the defense we’ve faced all year,” said Hart. “As a matter of fact I KNOW it’s the best D. On film it’s the best defense we’ve faced all year... athletically and with the schemes that they have. We’re going to see a lot of new stuff that we haven’t seen so far. It’s going to be interesting to see what they do and how they do it.”
The Wolverines entered the season with a number of goals, and they have already accomplished a number of them. One of the biggest deficiencies last year was the inability to run and stop the run consistently. Those traits were clearly the primary culprits in Michigan’s late game collapses in 2005. One of the major undertakings this season was showing marked improvement in those areas. On offense, thanks to the combination of the new zone-blocking scheme and a healthy Mike Hart, the Wolverines were able to do just that. In 12 games last year, Michigan averaged 161.6 yards per game on the ground, 3.9 yards per rush, and ran for 16 TDs on the season. Through 12 games in 2006 they’ve averaged 189.2 yards per game, 4.5 yards per rush, and have run for 21 TDs. The improvement on the ground on the other side of the ball was even more pronounced.
At the conclusion of last season Lloyd Carr was clearly looking for an upgrade on the defensive side of the ball and looked to then defensive backfield coach Ron English for answers. As the newly named defensive coordinator English released the hounds in 2006, decimating last year’s mediocre stats against the run (137.3 yards per game against, 3.8 yards per rush, and 12 TDs) with essentially the same players. The new attack style helped the Maize & Blue establish national best in yards against (43 yards per game, 1.9 yards per rush) and rushing touchdowns yielded, (5). Ten of the twelve opponents this year were held under 60 yards. Of those, nine were held under 50, five under 25, and two to negative rushing totals (Northwestern -13 and Penn State -14)
The only goal the Wolverines have fallen short of to date is beating Ohio State. Still, an 11-1 record against the nation’s second toughest schedule (Michigan’s opponents’ have a record of 78-47 (.624), while Florida’s has a record of 81-46 (.6378), is nothing to scoff at. One thing that would take away some of that bitter taste is accomplish their last attainable goal, and that is finishing strong. The Wolverines not only had trouble finishing games last year, they didn’t finish the season well either. Michigan has lost its last three bowl games, and four of its last five. This team is determined to change that trend.
“We want to prove we can finish our year,” said Long. “In past seasons we haven’t been able to win the bowl games. We want to come out and prove that we’re a great team… prove that we can play with the best and win and that we can finish the season strong.”
For the players that will return in 2007, a bowl victory isn’t just about putting an exclamation point on this season, it’s also about getting next season kicked off on the right foot.
“Whenever you can come and win a bowl game, it catapults you into next year and gets you ready for next year and gets everybody fired up,” Long explained. “We want to come out there, send the seniors out on a good note, come away with the win, and catapult us into next year and keep it rolling.”
Both teams have a lot to gain in that regard. Like Michigan, the Trojans have a lot of talent returning next year (41 of their 48-man 2-deep are underclassmen), so this game will also be the likely determinate of preseason number one. While Hart recognizes that, he refuses to let his team get ahead of itself.
“It will be a springboard for all of the hype in the off-season and all of that stuff,” said Hart. “But as a team, we’re going to have a new team. We’re going to lose people. It’s going to be a different team so it’s still going to be up to us to come out and perform. As far as the preseason hype and all of that stuff, this is the game for it. We have a lot of people coming back next year and USC has a lot of people coming back next year.”
For all the storylines and backdrops to this game that have mentioned, when it gets right down to it, the reason the players are so anxiously anticpating this match-up is actually quite simple.
“It’s going to be a fun game,” Long said. “USC is an explosive team. They are one of the great teams in this country…offense and defense. They just play fast, play hard, and they are a great team.”