The Trojans came off the field angry and frustrated, not quite sure how they had fallen behind underdog Stanford. It was halftime on a September afternoon last fall and their dream of going undefeated for the 2004 season – not to mention winning a second consecutive national title – was quickly evaporating. In the visitors' locker room at Stanford Stadium, before anyone quite realized what was happening, the defensive and offensive lines stood face to face. Slowly, other players closed in like kids expecting a schoolyard fight. The first words came from offensive guard John Drake.
"What are you going to really do about them running the ball?"
Defensive tackle Shaun Cody answered: "What are you going to do about keeping Matt Leinart off the ground?"
Looking back now, it seems easy to think of last season in the simplest of terms. The record book shows that USC powered through a dozen straight victories during the fall. Then, in the Orange Bowl, the top-ranked Trojans crushed second-ranked Oklahoma, 55-19, to cement that second title. Perfection. But that's not quite how it went. Their rise to greatness was marked by key moments, clutch performances and maybe even a little luck. It took some close calls to fashion this championship. More to the point, it took a critical two-game stretch that started with the trip north to Stanford for what everyone expected to be an easy win.
That day in Palo Alto, the underdog Cardinal scored early and often, hitting on both conventional plays and a fake field goal. With seconds remaining before halftime, Stanford running back J.R. Lemon took a handoff and ducked into the line as if to run out the clock but no one on the USC defense bothered to tackle him. Lemon dashed 82 yards for yet another touchdown to make the score 28-17, a play that USC quarterback Matt Leinart called "kind of a dagger."
A month earlier, during a comeback victory over Virginia Tech, the USC locker room had been quiet during halftime, few words uttered by the players. This time, Drake and Cody spoke up right away. The verbal challenges shot back and forth, growing louder each time. Then a funny thing happened. The players started yelling with each other instead of at each other.
"We're going to take over this game," Drake bellowed.
"Right here," Cody answered. "Right now."
Pretty soon, the boisterous tailback, LenDale White, joined in. So did his usually quiet backfield mates, Leinart and Reggie Bush. Teammates were bouncing off each other and knocking over water coolers. "It was the most fun, the most intense situation I've ever been in," middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. Finally, from out of nowhere, Pete Carroll stepped in.
"All right! All right!" the coach yelled. "I know you guys are excited. Listen up. We've got some checks to go over."
This wasn't a Hollywood movie. The Trojans did not come charging out to score 50 consecutive points. But the defense held Stanford scoreless in the second half, and the offense found ways to reach the end zone, Bush with a spectacular punt return to set up the winning touchdown. USC escaped, 31-28. "Every team looks for a chance to define what they are going to be about," Drake said of the halftime scene. "Right there, at that moment, we figured out what we were going to be about."
This new identity, forged in the heat of the moment, would be put to a test the very next game, at the Coliseum, against California. With less than two minutes remaining on the clock, the math was brutally simple. USC had a 23-17 lead. Cal had first and goal at the nine and needed a touchdown to score an upset. The next few plays would decide the game.
Tatupu looked around the huddle and saw his teammates barely hanging on. Cody. Mike Patterson. Matt Grootegoed. All of them looked exhausted. But Tatupu saw something else. "The hate in their eyes," the middle linebacker said. He told them: "You couldn't have a better ending. Especially with what happened to us last year."
The Trojans had lost in triple overtime to Cal the previous season, a defeat that had cost them a clean shot at the 2003 national title. Now, with a 4-0 record and a No. 1 ranking, they were back in the same fix. After opening an early lead, they had watched the seventh-ranked Golden Bears fight back thanks to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who had tied an NCAA record by completing his first 23 passes in a row. Wow, is he ever going to miss? USC linebacker Dallas Sartz wondered.
"We dominated the game," Rodgers said. "We drove up and down the field."
The Golden Bears also squandered opportunities, fumbling in scoring position and missing a short field goal. With time running out and his team down by six points, Rodgers had one last chance, scrambling and connecting on several passes to move within spitting distance of the end zone. There was 1:47 remaining and, USC defensive tackle Manuel Wright said, "It was scary serious."
As desperate as the situation might have seemed for the Trojans, secondary coach Greg Burns saw reason for hope. Most of Rodgers' completions that day had come on short passes, underneath the coverage. This close to the goal line, not much territory left to defend, the USC cornerbacks could tighten down. And the crowd at the closed end of the sold-out Coliseum was producing a roar unlike anything heard in the stadium for decades. If only the Trojan players could hold up. "We were running on empty," Cody said.
On first down, Rodgers threw a pass that was too low for receiver Noah Smith to get his hands on. USC cornerback Justin Wyatt breathed a sigh of relief, saying: "Thank God." On second down, Rodgers started to dish a shovel pass to running back J.J. Arrington but had to pull back because Arrington got lost in a muddle of linemen. That split-second hesitation gave Wright a chance to break through. Rodgers scrambled to the right with the big man on his heels. "I thought he was going to outrun me, but I was pulling closer," Wright said. "I thought, ‘I'm going to have to leap to grab him.' " The quarterback went down for a five-yard loss, making it third and goal from the 14.
The fans were so loud that the Coliseum was shaking as USC called a timeout and Carroll gathered his defense on the sideline. It was just like that day in 1991 when he was defensive coordinator for the New York Jets, urging his players to mount a goal-line stand against the New England Patriots. There had been no yelling or finger-waving. Instead, he told them: "Do you understand how exciting this is? How great this is?" And the Jet defense had kept New England out of the end zone.
Now, as the head man at USC, Carroll was once again in an upbeat mood. These kinds of situations were tailor-made for a man such as him, preternaturally drawn to competition. "As good as it gets," he said to his guys. "The perfect setting."
The Trojans got one step closer to victory when, on third down, Rodgers barely missed on a pass that sailed through the end zone. With Cal down to its last chance, defensive end Frostee Rucker wanted to tell his teammates that this season would be different, this time they would not lose to the Golden Bears. He tried yelling to them but recalled, "You couldn't hear anything anyway."
With the USC defensive players waving their arms, urging the fans to get even louder, Rodgers took the snap and was forced to his left by the rush. He spotted receiver Jonathan Makonnen working an outside-in move against cornerback Kevin Arbet. "He was trying to get under me for a post," Arbet said. "We got tangled up." The players jostled and Makonnen slipped to the turf as the pass whizzed just beyond his reach. When the ball hit the ground, Arbet said: "It's over."