Although I am as disappointed as most any other fan that USC failed in its quest for an unprecedented third straight AP national football title, I am still thrilled to have been alive to have witnessed one of the most amazing rides in the modern sports era. It was not all that long ago that mediocrity had become the unacceptable norm for football at the University of Southern California, and I often wondered if anything even closely resembling the dominance of the late 1960's and 1970's would ever be seen again at USC. Thankfully, Pete Carroll has proven that even in this day of relative parity, it is possible to have a team that thrives for excellence and succeeds in its quest to be a superb program. Although USC lost this heartbreaker, I do not see a final rating of number two as a huge failure. Obviously others disagree and will say that the season was not a success but difference of opinion is what can often make things fun.
For much of the season, I have written and expressed that I think this USC offense is one of the best, if not the best of all time and that it is an unstoppable unit. Despite the loss to the Longhorns, nothing has changed my mind on that point. USC gained some 574 yards against a defense that was very highly rated and against a unit that thought it could stop USC. Well, Texas did make one huge stop, but for the most part, I think USC caused many of its own offensive mishaps. Nobody is perfect and bonehead type plays and calls happen to the best of them. Despite the fact that Reggie Bush is arguably as fine an offensive football player as any other to ever don the Cardinal and Gold for USC, I think he would be the first to admit that if he had it to do again, he would not attempt that lateral in the first half that put an end to an otherwise fine offensive drive for the Trojans.
There has been bickering and second guessing about the offensive play calling and the offensive schemes amongst fans and internet posters all year long. Even last night as I watched the game and threw fit after fit when things went wrong, I could not help but question some of the plays that were called. As my viewing partner Terrytrojan32, a guy who knows tons about football pointed out last night as he has most every game, there was no logical reason to ever go away from LenDale White for much of the game. With Texas keying on Reggie, LenDale was virtually an unstoppable force running the ball, though we all know he was stopped on one crucial fourth down and short attempt. And when SC was running LenDale and eating up the clock, the UT offense and Vince Young were simply unable to do any damage. However, after taking a deep breath and analyzing the game with a more level head, it became obvious to me that the offense, like it or not, was not the reason USC did not win the game last night. Any time a team scores 38 points and gains 574 yards, there is some other kind of trouble brewing if that team loses. The passing game was awesome in the second half and Dwayne Jarrett, Dominque Byrd and Matt Leinart were on fire for the last 30 minutes. In most games, that would have been more than enough.
Is there really any reason to question the play calling and offensive performance? That depends on who is asking and then answering the question. To my critical way of thinking, the answer is yes, it's ok to challenge anything that will satisfy one's desire; but truth be told, the bar has been set so high that anything other than a win and a near perfect game will leave somebody dissatisfied. How many times have I already read that had Chow been the guy, surely he would have called a better game, especially in crunch time, and surely SC would have won. To that I say, some folks have very limited memories. Think back to the Carson Palmer's last season. Some people think that offense was unstoppable late in the year, and I would have to agree. However, they did not do any better than SC did last night. Nope, I do not think Chow or anyone else would have had the answer. Sure, I do wonder why Reggie Bush was not on the field for that last attempt at the first down. I do wonder why he was not at least used as a decoy to help clear out the box a bit. On the other hand, LenDale had been running through them all night. I also wonder why SC would go for a quarterback sneak from an empty set backfield. But in the end, I still don't think either of those plays is the main reason USC lost the game. No, in the end, their failure to hold a 12 point lead for 6 minutes in crunch time says it all. The offense scored enough points to put the Trojans in a position to win. Unfortunately, this time it was the opposition who had that one guy who was destined to lead his team over the top. Most of the time, it had been USC that had the one star. This time, on this night, in this given game, the Trojans met their match, and his name is Vince Young.
What is up with SC's defense? Is there a general lack of talent? Are the schemes less than optimal? Or is very little wrong and did the Trojans simply run into a buzz saw when they played Texas? I suppose there are as many answers to that question as there are people who ask them. In my opinion, the coaching was fine, maybe even better than fine for the majority of the season and again last night. Texas had an offense that was more talented and more efficient than the defense that was trying to defend it, (much the same way the Texas defense could not defend the USC offense.) I did notice that SC did better when they blitzed as opposed to those plays when they dropped back and let Young pick them apart. Yes, Young did beat some of the blitzes, but he simply clobbered the Trojans when he had time to sit back and look around. If Pete was trying to confuse Vince with lots of guys back, it did not work since the receivers had plenty of time to run free and Vince hit them more often than not.
Obviously, USC was unable to sustain or generate any kind of rush with only four down linemen. Coming into the game, USC's Defensive Ends were considered one of the premier duos in the nation. That has been true for much of the season, but in this championship game, the Texas Offensive Tackles appeared to get the better of the SC defensive ends. On some occasions the inside NG and DT were able to get some pressure, but they could not catch Vince Young or if they got him, they could not bring him down. Anytime a defense gives up over 500 yards and 41 points, the opposing offense has done their job better than the defense.
After having the luxury of seeing Mike Patterson, Shaun Cody, Lofa Tatupu, Matt Grootegoed , Manny Wright, Eric Wright and others manhandle the Oklahoma Sooners in last year's Orange Bowl, it had to be frustrating for players and coaches alike to watch Vince Young and the Longhorns dismantle the Trojans. What is equally difficult is to watch one guy do so much damage. In fact, even with the group mentioned above, USC, under Pete Carroll, has actually had a tough time on other occasions when they have had to face a mobile quarterback who can also throw. Pete is a master at devising defensive schemes, but he has yet to come up with the solution to the aforementioned. And to be perfectly fair, perhaps there is no antidote, though it can never hurt to have big, physical linebackers and safeties who can fly to the ball and to the runner, and to have a down four who dominated their opponents in almost every game.
Last night, the shortcomings of the somewhat makeshift defense were magnified by an opponent with a great offense of their own. The general lack of dominant dline play came back to hurt the Trojans in this game. The inexperience and lack of quality depth due to injuries also played havoc with the linebacking corps. Under ideal circumstances, an injured Brian Cushing would not have had to play so many minutes. It would have been great to have the experience of senior Dallas Sartz and the help of a healthy Thomas Williams. (and oh how SC could have used Lofa Tatupu-perhaps the most underrated of all of last year's defensive guys that were lost to the pros and/or graduation.) The safeties have been steady all year long and I thought they played reasonably well. I also thought that on those few plays that the corners were actually playing somebody tightly, they did very well. However, to my eye, most of the time, the SC dbacks were well off the Texas receivers and then tried to swarm to the receiver. This time, they were unable to shake the ball loose and to get the turnovers.
So what else is there to say? First, I would like to say thank you to all the players and to the staff for giving me and thousands of others thrill after thrill watching some great USC football. One of the reasons so many of us are so disappointed is that the staff and players alike have spoiled us. Five short years ago, a 12-1 season and a spot in the BCS championship game would have been an unbelievable dream come true. Now, without ending the season as number one, many are suffering through a feeling of loss, anger and almost disbelief. Putting things in perspective, USC has won about 45 of the last 47 games and that is not a bad accomplishment. This year, Reggie Bush brought another Heisman Trophy to Heritage Hall and that made it 3 out of the last 4 years that a Trojan has won college football's most prestigious award. USC finished the season rated as the number two team and that is also pretty darned good, at least for most teams. Pete has laid the foundation for a program based on excellence and it should last for some time.
The future still looks bright and I will go on record as saying that I think the days of USC playing dominant defensive football will return. I know that the saying is that defense wins championships, so it can never hurt to dominate the defensive side of the ball. (though last night offense won the game, as neither team could consistently shut down the other) USC would appear to be on the verge of getting even more fine young players into the program and I really like USC's chances to compete for the conference and national title year in and year out so long as Pete Carroll is the head coach.