So with this knew knowledge firmly in hand, let's take a look at this year's Rose Bowl and just how everyone's favorite coach, leading everyone's favorite team, is going to face his latest and greatest challenge, beating the Michigan Wolverines and in the name of that most beautiful of flowers, the Rose, reclaiming what some think, but never did, got lost… Trojan Pride.
Make no mistake; the newest version of the Wolverines is the most balanced team the Trojans will have faced all season. They've got playmakers at all three fazes of the game, defense, offense and special teams. But so do the Trojans. In fact, when one looks a little closer, the only real difference between these two legends might be "how" they win their games and the colors that they wear. Beyond that, they are nothing more than two sides of the same Chad Henne penny.
In 2005 the Michigan Wolverines tumbled. No, they fell hard, losing five games including their bowl match against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. What Michigan head coach, Lloyd Carr did to resuscitate his ailing program was go back to ground game of Big Ten football and in so doing he found his team's heart, in running back Mike Hart.
With 301 carries in 2006 versus 150 in 2005, Hart became the workhorse for Carr's Wolverines and he carried his heaviest loads in their biggest games, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, breaking the century mark in all three.
In comparison, the Trojans top rusher, Chauncey Washington, carried the ball half as much and produced almost exactly half as many yards.
But for Hart to have that sort of impact on his club, it meant opportunities had to be taken from some other part of the Wolverine offense. That unlucky donor was starting quarterback, Chad Henne.
In 2005 Henne had 380 pass attempts for roughly 2700 yards. This season Henne's pass attempts fell by nearly 100 and his total yards by over 500.
Some have speculated that following the Trojans' trouncing of Michigan in the 2004 Rose Bowl that Lloyd Carr made a concerted effort to "freshen up" his offense with more passes and less runs, to sort of keep up with the best offense in the land. That effort backfired in the following 2005 season, as his personnel did not match the play-calling.
So Lloyd Carr went back to what he knows best: the ground game. And for that prescience finds himself back in the Grand Daddy of them all, the Rose Bowl.
What makes Michigan tough for USC coach Pete Carroll to stop on offense is their passing game. Just because the Wolverines threw less in '06 doesn't mean they can't throw. The 2005 season got Michigan fully acclimated in the passing game and for all the drop-off in Henne's attempts, his completion percentage actually went up. Henne is just below the Trojans' own John David Booty – both just under 62%.
So the question becomes, which Wolverine offense will USC face come New Year's Day? If Carr were a gambler, he might try Henne's hand and pass to set up the run. Going against tendencies paid dividends for the two teams that toppled the Trojans' this year, but Carr has proven he prefers the tried and true versus changing up the maize and blue.
That means Hart will get his twenty-five to thirty carries and the Wolverines will probably grind it out instead of going airborne. If Lloyd Carr really wants a Rose Bowl victory, something that has eluded him during his last two visits to Pasadena, he might want to rethink that strategy.
As for Pete Carroll and his young USC charges, they should prove capable going up against either the run or pass.
Michigan's defense is very, very good but so is USC's. In fact, the two are nearly identical. While the Trojan defense gave up 39 more yards per game, they actually allowed fewer touchdowns to be scored against them.
Michigan's defensive strength is stopping the run, allowing an astonishing 40+ yards per game. Their pass defense does not measure up, in comparison. So what's an opposing coach to do? If you have the squadron that can take flight, and your up against a great run defense, you pass. Just like kicking away from the most dangerous man on the field.
USC does not much of a run game to support a passing offense. And Pete Carroll knows he has the personnel to take this game away from Lloyd Carr by setting up the run with the pass.
One of the big criticisms in the season ending loss to cross-town rival, Ucla, was that the Trojan offense rarely went deep. The argument was made that John David Booty didn't even have the time to go short, much less deep.
The answer seemed obvious at the time, keep someone home to protect the quarterback and buy him some time. To beat Michigan, USC needs to do exactly that – keep the tight end or back home just long enough to hit a receiver deep, or release him for a dump pass. It's become even more obvious in looking back at that game.
USC, because of youth and missing a true fullback, is not strong enough to give the quarterback enough time, without a little help. The Trojans need to remember that when they face off against the Wolverines.
As much as going against tendencies worked for Trojan opponents in 2006, if Pete Carroll wants his first win in 2007 he will need to embrace a little bit of that philosophy.
Many have wondered how USC can possibly keep the great LaMarr Woodley out of the Trojan backfield if they couldn't keep a pair of no-name Bruins from coming in as if they had keys to the house.
Well those two Bruins have names of Hickman and Davis. They also have national tackle-for-loss and sack rankings that are noticeably higher than anything their Wolverine counterpart has posted. Granted Mr. Woodley works alone on that defensive line but that fact should be noted as a Trojan benefit, not the other way around.
Ucla lesson learned – painful but now that its over, worth every Chad Henne penny if it help gets the Trojans this much needed Rose Bowl championship.
Speaking of Chad Henne pennies, earlier I eluded to the idea that the Wolverines and Trojans were flip sides of the same coin. I mentioned this because so many people have awarded Michigan the game before its even been played.
One team passes for more yards than they run but both averages nearly identically totals. One team stops the run but is victim to the pass, while the other shuts both down with equal aplomb. One team scores 30.17 points per game, while allowing 14.6. The other scores 30.33 and gives up an equally impressive 14.9. Both have lost the last two times they played in the Rose Bowl and one of each of their losses came to the same team.
In this latest version of the Grand Daddy of all bowls, both teams would rather being player somewhere else, kind of a "neither here, nor there" with a big sense of "stuck in the middle with you" but both want this win more than either is willing to reveal. Even more interesting is these two could be playing one another again for much higher stakes a year from now.
Ironically the greatest difference between these two teams is the miles between their campuses and what the media has declared as their darling.
It reminded me of earlier Rose Bowl the Trojans were part of when no one either wanted or thought they could win – the 1995 game against Northwestern.
Much like then, as is now, the media has run around saying that SC lost their shot at this year's national championship game, while the Wolverines had theirs taken away from them.
I don't know how many of those writers were even paying attention during the month of November but the Trojans ran a gauntlet and came up one game short. They played two of the nation's top ranked offenses in Oregon and Cal, then followed that up by facing their two rivals in Notre Dame and Ucla. At the end of that Herculean effort they'd won three and lost just one, and barely at that.
In my opinion, you take any of the top ten teams and put them to that task. I doubt any would fare better.
Happy New Year, everybody! Are we having fun, or what? We better be because as fans, players, alumni and just general onlookers of the greatest sport left on this earth, college football, we are all about to witness and be a part of one of the all classics.
This game will probably go down in history just like the last one did and take every second to decide the winner. It won't be for the faint of heart but it will be just as is should be – a battle to the end.
It's hard to pick a winner and I don't believe there can be a loser. Both teams had fantastic seasons just to get Pasadena. My gut tells me that if SC can fire up the passing game early, keep Woodley off of Booty just long enough, that the Trojans will win.
If Michigan, on the other hand, finds its Hart once again and he's able to control the game with 25 plus carries at his season average of five yards per carry, and the Wolverines can get to Booty, then it's a Maize and Blue day.
I've said all year that defense wins championships and both these teams find their strength on that side of the ball. Because of that I am looking for a relatively low-scoring, long afternoon of a dogfight. The fact that Michigan has not played a down of football in 57 days has to be taken into account. The fact that SC still hasn't found its stride after 12 games could also tip the scale. The idea that both wants to prove they were the one left behind for the National Championship is what will make this game so damn entertaining.
Overtime USC 27 UM 23