Like sugar plums dancing in my head, not since my youth after my first Tommy's burger with the old man and being introduced to Simpson and the members of the Wild Bunch, have I been this excited about a game. Cardinal and Gold versus the Maize and Blue. The number one ranked University of Southern California Trojans against long time foe and top four, Big Ten bad boy, Michigan Wolverines meet in the Grand Daddy of them all, the Rosebowl, for a possible share in the 2004 National Championship. Nothing makes my heart beat as fast, or my knuckles turn as white, as Trojan football. And as sweet as sugar might be, nothing would turn my New Year more sour than the unexpected prick of a thorny rose.
"We accept! We accept!..." exclaimed Heisman finalist Chris Perry after his Wolverine team trounced last year's National Champs, Ohio State in their annual matchup, when the Rosebowl representative extended the invitation to play on New Year's day. "We got screwed! We got screwed!..." was the cry from the USC Trojans, when they learned an invisible hand had just slapped them in the face, canceling their plans for a hot time in New Orleans. One team acted as if they'd found the Promised Land. The others were nothing near the Chosen People and that's when my heart skipped a major beat.
I couldn't get Perry's passion out of my mind. His jubilation compared to the Trojans utter dismay brought immediate concern to my practiced eye. I feel like I know SC football – have my finger on its pulse, as it were. I sat in the stands that cold December morning just a couple seasons ago when a less than inspired Trojan football team fell to some hungry boys from Iowa. I nearly vowed to never make an SC road game again. Of course, that's like the drug addict saying "no" to one last fix – it ain't no use. When you're hooked, you're hooked and my Cardinal and Gold jones runs through my veins, deep. So, when I saw Mr. Perry, with that huge smile, embrace that bouquet of roses like a long lost lover, a shiver ran down my spine. Might these Wolverines hunger for this victory the way I, the drawn-out Trojan junkie did? Might they want it so bad that they could steal it away from me? Please God, let the USC coaches and players hear my "Call to arms!!!"
I'm awake, sweat soaked. It's all been a dream, a bad dream. Pete Carroll has his boys ready and waiting. They're home for the Holidays, doing things just like usual. They faced this same nemesis last year in the Orange Bowl. A bunch of cocky Mid-Westerners convinced the boys from LaLa land had never seen the brute force a year round training table could produce. What those Iowans didn't know was that Omar Nazel had just announced it was "War time, let's take it outside…" and the Trojans were more than ready to rumble. Last thing I remember before my head hit the pillow was…Justin Fargas ripping that field apart and Pete Carroll screaming…"We're just getting started! We're just getting started!" I didn't believe him, of course. This was as good as it could get – at least for the immediate future. We were losing a Heisman winning quarterback, a Thorpe finalist, three future NFL running backs, our middle linebacker, a leading pass catcher and starters on both lines! How could we improve on last season with all those key elements gone? Impossible. But, he wasn't lying. He did it. Carroll and the best staff to ever coach Trojan football upped the ante, they brought us all, those nearly lost, hungry as hell fans, all the way back to number one!!! Screw the computers. SC is back and no one can take that away from us!
"We accept! We accept!" In all the glory of the victor. I can still hear it. It haunts me, even now. When you've reached the top, the air gets thin. There is always somebody ready to snatch it away – steal your dream, dash your hopes…take away something Trojan fans have waited a quarter of a century to hold in their arms…ONE MORE TIME!!! I've got to drown it out. How can I do it!?! Breath boy, breath. A call to arms…
Break it down. Look at the two teams statistically. That'll tell the story. That'll ease my worried mind. Dear God, they're neck and neck in nearly every category. It's uncanny. Look again. Look closer… What do the stats tell me? How do they stack up? What are the weaknesses and strengths that could make one a champion the other an also ran?
USC, playing in a pass happy conference, is extremely vulnerable when an opponent goes to the air. Michigan fields a fifth senior who has comparable numbers to the Trojans' Heisman semi-finalist, Matt Leinart. That makes no sense. They actually put the ball up more than SC, by a considerable margin. Are they a passing team, with a great running back? If the Wolverines are that good in the air, the team that just won their in a conference respected for its smash mouth football, how good must they be on the ground? Through the entire season, Michigan had nearly 100 more offensive plays than USC, but only managed a total of 70 more yards. Add to that, they scored 60 less points than the Trojans. And as vulnerable as USC was to the pass this season, Michigan gave up nearly double the yards on the ground at 1500 as did USC with nearly the same number of attempts by opponents. What does that say? Is it Michigan, not USC that will live and die by the pass in Thursday's game? Or, is it USC that must grind out the game on the ground, if they hope to have the victory?
The oddsmakers seem confident about their prediction, and in reviewing team stats they should be right – it's going to be a close one. SC probably wins by 7. Then why are so many Trojan fans so sure it'll be another blow out? What do they know that Lloyd Carr and his charges do not? What will be the Trojans' secret weapon that makes this just like every other game this season, save one, a total mismatch? It can only be one thing and those fans know, there's nothing secret about it…
Great coaching – the best. That, which I have spoken of all season long. The USC staff has plugged in plays and called numbers with their Trojan computer that has made even the most tweeked of BCS blow a fuse. Pete Carroll, Norm Chow, Ed Orgeron and the other men that comprise the best staff in the nation, have taken a team that should be in its rebuilding year – a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, all the way to the top. And despite being about the only man who could replace Bo, I don't think Lloyd Carr has got what it takes to slow down that Trojan train. SC's coaches are that good. And they, should be all the difference the team needs to claim their prize – their share of the national championship.
"We accept! We accept!" Then again, a coach can only do so much. Once the playesr hit the field it will be about absolute desire and seamless execution. The Cardinal and Gold versus the Maize and Blue. Number one against number four in the Grand Daddy of them all. Nothing makes my heart beat as fast or turn my knuckles as white. This is as good as it gets and nothing, not even sugar, should taste as sweet as one de-thorned rose firmly planted in Matt Leinart's mouth.
I hope the players realize this. This, is one of the times of their lives. It will never be replaced. This is it. War time. A call to arms. This is the only game that matters come Thursday. So in the same nameless jerseys, grey facemasks and black shoes give all the Trojan fans and players who have waited so long to see a new national championship banner added to the Heritage Hall collection, one more play to etch into our minds. Make yourselves legends and give us reason to cheer and sing with joy to those departing seniors…
Fight On for ol' SC, Our men Fight On to victory, Our Alma Mater dear, looks up to you, Fight On and win, for ol' SC, Fight On to victory, Fight On!
Make that a Tommy burger with cheese, chips and a coke. Thanks. USC 34 UM 20