Finding edge to Orange Bowl matchup no easy task

Sooners Illustrated Editor Jay C. Upchurch breaks down tonight's OU-USC Orange Bowl matchup.

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It might be impossible, but if you can peel your eyes away from the two Heisman Trophy winners and the other two Heisman finalists during the 71st Annual Orange Bowl tonight, there is a chance you'll see just how the game will be won or lost. Because for all the well-deserved hype being heaped on Oklahoma's Jason White and Adrian Peterson, and Southern Cal's Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, the national title will more than likely be decided by a lesser-known group of players.

The first place to spy should be the trenches, where creating running lanes and providing pass protection become paramount to the successes or failures of offenses and defenses. Oklahoma's experienced O-line will be put to the test by a Trojan attack unit that recorded 48 sacks and forced 33 turnovers. And on the other side of the ball, the Sooners' front seven will do its best to add to the 24 sacks the USC front surrendered during the regular season.

"Our offensive line guys take a lot of pride. I like the fact that we come in with great experience there and great ability there, so that's going to be a big match-up," said OU coach Bob Stoops.

While the battle of the trenches figures to potentially tip the scale to one team or the other, there are plenty of other critical matchups that will also help decide which team will take home the crystal ball.

There are X-factors like Mark Bradley, Antonio Perkins and Garrett Hartley for the Sooners, and LenDale White, Dwayne Jarrett and Lofa Tatupu for SC. Those names and a dozen others could provide some unexpected or expected element that turns the tide in the winner's favor.

There are so many variables in any college football game, but tonight they will magnified all the way down to taped ankles and pre-game meals at Pro Player Stadium. The smallest detail could provide the winning margin and you can be certain both teams have executed their respective checklists with great detail and care.

"I think overall we come in more — definitely a more positive," said Stoops. "We haven't had to answer questions the entire week on why we're here. Other than that, we've prepared well and they're coming in excited and ready to play."

Here is a little closer look at some of the key matchups:

When Oklahoma Has The Ball... Passing Game — It's the immovable object vs. the irresistible force, as quarterback Jason White comes in having thrown only six interceptions all season, while the USC defense has picked off 19 passes. If OU's offensive line can protect White, it will go a long way toward giving the Sooners an insurmountable edge. Not only would OU's QB probably pick the Trojans' secondary apart, but it would help open things up for other parts of Chuck Long's playbook.

Running Game — Keeping linebacker Lofa Tatupu and defensive tackle Mike Patterson in check will be critical to OU's success on the ground. That duo combined for 29 tackles for losses during the regular season and they will be looking to add to that total every time Adrian Peterson touches the ball. Jammal Brown and Wes Sims, along with the rest of their O-line mates, will have their work cut out against a quick and instinctive USC defense. Whether Peterson can crank out some big yards will probably depend on the extended blocking of J.D. Runnels and OU's tight ends.

Intangibles — OU's speed could be a major factor, along with White's overall experience. USC hasn't faced a receiving corps with talent like the Sooners put on the field — so many weapons for White to choose from and he's been here before, and this time he's healthy. And don't be surprised to see OU break out a well-timed trick play or two. They've been fairly rare this season, which makes the opportunity for surprise even greater against the nation's No. 1 scoring defense.

When Southern Cal Has The Ball... Passing Game — Matt Leinart has been unflappable all season and unless the Sooners can get pressure on the edges or with some creative blitz packages, he'll have a chance to do even more damage tonight. His favorite target has been Dwayne Jarrett, but SC's ability to get Reggie Bush in one-on-one matchups with linebackers and defensive backs has been a key to its success. The Sooners must find a way to neutralize Bush's overall effectiveness and force Leinart to look elsewhere for big plays. The play of Dan Cody, Larry Birdine and Jonathan Jackson could determine the fate of both teams.

Running Game — When Bush isn't catching passes he's taking handoffs from Leinart, and making the most of each carry. The elusive sophomore averaged over six yards a carry and had six of his 15 touchdowns on the ground. The effectiveness of LenDale White, SC's leading rusher, will also play a major part in the final outcome. If the Sooners can control the trenches and force the Trojans into a more one dimensional attack, the possibilities for title No. 8 are greatened. That, however, remains a big "if."

Intangibles — The Bush factor and his ability to create big plays from so many areas on the field is a major plus for the Trojans. If OU can't find a way to counter his success — possibly with turnovers — it could be a long night for the Sooner defense. Third-down conversions. USC held opponents to 27 percent on the season, while OU converted 55 percent of the time. The Trojans' drive-killing ability will be put to the ultimate test.

THE CONCLUSION — In their last Orange Bowl appearance, Oklahoma turned what was expected to be an offensive shootout into a rugged defensive war. And while the 2004 defense probably isn't playing at that same level, it has allowed only 13 points in the last 14 quarters. USC, with all of its weapons, will put that streak to the test. Again, the Heisman candidates may cancel each other out, which leaves the Mark Claytons, Mark Bradleys and Dwaye Jarretts to ultimately decide the outcome. Says here, the Sooners have more firepower behind the Heisman quartet and that should be enough to gain a slight edge on the scoreboard. Final — OKLAHOMA 23, USC 16.

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