Getting Defensive: DBs Expect To Hold Serve

Most of the Rose Bowl hype has spotlighted the record-setting offenses at Texas and USC, as well as the uber-talented athletes who run them. So, you can bet both defenses will enter the BCS Championship game with a Bevo-sized chip on their shoulders.

"The two defenses are going to be so sick of hearing about how good the other offenses are that they're going to play their tails off," Texas coach Mack Brown predicted.

Then again, they'll have to. You won't find a true national championship bout where the offenses have, collectively, put up these kinds of numbers. The 2005 Longhorns, by averaging 508.4 ypg and an NCAA-best 50.9 ppg, are set to shatter school records for those categories established by the 1969 national champions. Meanwhile, a Trojan offense that averages a NCAA-leading 580.2 ypg is making a claim for the best offense in modern college football history. The Men of Troy are in the national Top Five in every statistical offensive category. USC is the only school ever to have a 3,000-yard passer (2004 Heisman winner Matt Leinart), a pair of 1,000-yard runners (2005 Heisman winner Reggie Bush, LenDale White) and a 1,000-yard receiver (All-American WR Dwayne Jarrett)

If All-American status stemmed from confidence, then Texas would likely have four first-teamers in its secondary, the strength of this year's defense.

"We've got the same offense but with different names," said FS Michael Griffin. "Both teams can do the same thing. Really, playing their offense is just like being in practice."

But will playing Texas' defense be 'just like practice' for USC? The Longhorn defense is rated No. 6 in yards allowed (280.3 ypg) while USC finished the regular season at No. 39 (344.7 ypg). It was expected to be a rebuilding year for USC, after sending All-American DTs Sean Cody and Michael Patterson to the NFL. A crew that led the nation in run defense in 2004 (79.4 ypg) returns just five starters and has slipped, somewhat, to No. 24 (117.3 ypg). Overshadowed by its offensive counterparts, the Trojan defense is viewed, by some, as the team's Achilles' Heel.

Texas QB Vince Young ain't buying it.

"I don't understand why they're called the weakest link," Young said. "From what I've seen, they're flying around to the ball and tipping a lot of balls. They've got great athleticism in their front four. We'll have our hands full."

There is youth (albeit explosive) among USC's front seven. There are a pair of sophomores (DE Lawrence Jackson, NT Sedrick Ellis) among the down-linemen and another pair manning the outside linebacker spots (WLB Keith Rivers and SLB Thomas Williams, who is listed as a co-starter with freshman Brian Cushing). Jackson was a first-team freshman All-American last year and is now the team-leader in TFL (13), sacks (10), forced fumbles (4) and fumble recoveries (2). USC also lost a pair of All-American linebackers (Matt Grootegoed, Lofa Tatupo). Williams has stepped in for Dallas Sartz who was the only returning starting linebacker but was lost for the season with a dislocated shoulder suffered against Arkansas. Junior MLB Oscar Lua leads the team with 60 tackles.

Those who consider the Trojan defense as the team's 'weakest link' primarily attribute the designation to a pass defense that surrendered 227.3 ypg (No. 77) this past season. The secondary had to break in two new starters this season, senior FS Scott Ware and sophomore CB Josh Pinkard, but boasts AP All-American CB Darnell Bing. Wyatt is undersized at 5-10 while Pinkard has endured a season of on-the-job training after making the switch from safety. Bing leads the DBs with four picks this season and, collectively, the unit is responsible for 22 INTs. It's no small part of the reason why USC is currently first nationally in turnover margin (+1.8). Conversely, Texas has collected just 10 INTs in 2005.

"We should have had a lot more," said Thorpe Award winning SS Michael Huff. "I don't know if it's because, in the fourth quarter, more people throw out there (in the PAC-10). In our games, if we're ahead 60-0, they don't throw much. We're running the clock to get the sucker over. A lot of it had to do with the second half of the game and teams running out the clock. That stat is kind of misleading."

This much is certain: the Trojans have not faced a defense on game day in 2005 as they will on January 4, 2006. You won't find a single PAC-10 defense rated among the Top 40. Statistically, the stingiest unit the Trojans have faced this season belonged to a Fresno State team that yielded 340 ypg (No. 34). That's why those who argue that the respective offenses become the great equalizers in this contest believe it could be the Texas D that tips the scale in Pasadena.

Griffin sees no reason why USC, despite its 34-game winning streak and two national titles, should enter the game as a seven-point favorite.

"They have two Heisman Trophy winners on their team and we have a Heisman Trophy, in our eyes," he said. "We have a Thorpe Award winner. We have All-Americans. These are two great teams going up against one another. Really, it's like a California All-Star team going up against a Texas All-Star team."

Nor does Griffin believe that USC has much advantage in the fact that the program is competing in its third straight national title game. Most of these Longhorns weren't even born the last time Texas played in a bowl game, undefeated and ranked No. 2, with a shot at the national championship, in the 1984 Cotton Bowl.

"They've played in championship games but we've played against championship teams," Griffin concluded. "OU has been in the championship two years in a row. We play teams that have an opportunity to go, like Ohio State. They're a great team. We've played against Michigan. Here and there, we've played against championship teams."

Now, Texas only wants to be one... even if it means getting a little defensive.

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