On one hand, this Rose Bowl seemed just like old times. USC beat Michigan in Pasadena. Bo Schembechler and Gerald Ford might have had great seats in their heavenly press box, but they might be grateful that they didn't have to see this smackdown with human eyes. Lloyd Carr--who put together a brilliant regular season to shut up the critics in Ann Arbor--lost in the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains, just like Bo's teams normally did. The speed of a Pac-10 team outflanked a Big Ten power, particularly in a matchup between a receiving corps and a secondary. Dwayne Jarrett made manly and significant catches that dripped with drama, as was the case in last season's Rose Bowl against Texas. Pete Carroll--in an eerie repeat of the 2004 Rose Bowl against the Wolverines--used angled blitzes to confuse the bejeezus out of a Michigan offensive line and record an ungodly number of sacks on a helpless blue-shirted quarterback. On so many levels, this Rose Bowl was a game America had seen many times before.
And yet, as familiar as this Rose Bowl was, Troy's triumph also offered some stunning snapshots and revolting developments in the college football world.
A typical USC win over Michigan in Pasadena usually consisted of rough-and-tumble football, with offensive balance being an absolute necessity. The Trojans' 2004 victory over the Maize and Blue was achieved with a much more explosive offense, but points came with more difficulty for SC on that day. Three years after Pete Carroll's first New Year's Day win over Lloyd Carr, a less-talented offense lifted the Trojan Empire of College Football to an even more emphatic spanking of the Wolverines.
USC offensive coordinators Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were smart to abandon their nonexistent running game early in the second half. Occasional token runs--which never gained more than two or three yards a pop--only blunted any of the momentum the Trojans tried to establish in a futile first half. It was smart to pass on every single snap. With that being said, no one could have ever expected that a three-point first half would turn into a 29-point explosion for USC's offense. The days of John McKay, John Robinson and "Student Body Right" prevailing over Bo Schembechler were relegated to the even more distant past on the first day of 2007.
Old-time football fans who remember decades upon decades of smashmouth Rose Bowls could be heard throughout the fourth quarter, imploring USC's coaches to milk the clock with an eight-point lead at the 13-minute mark, and especially with a 14-point bulge inside of eight minutes left in regulation. But the play-calling duo known as "Sarkiffin" just kept passing with supreme stubbornness, even after the Trojans had cemented a 25-11 advantage. It was at this point when USC's victory began to become something greater than a "mere" Rose Bowl win.
In command of the proceedings, Pete Carroll chose to make a statement, and his playmakers provided a very fat exclamation point on a picture-perfect evening in college football's most beautiful setting. On four straight passes, USC ignored the time-honored rules of clock-draining and covered 85 yards with stunning ease. Instead of bleeding Michigan to a slow death, the Trojans took their mighty sword and decapitated the Wolverine foe from the Upper Midwest.
John David Booty hit Steve Smith for 26 yards on pass number one. He hit Jarrett for 29 on pass number two. Booty connected with Fred Davis for 23 yards on pass number three, a ball Davis effortlessly suction-cupped with one hand to demoralize Michigan even more. And on pass number four, Booty found Smith in the end zone for the kill shot. In just four plays, USC didn't just exorcise its Rose Bowl demons and put the finishing touches on a successful season. No, Troy's aerial assault embarrassed the Wolverines, nakedly showing a nation that Ohio State's evisceration of Michigan's secondary was no aberrational or isolated incident.
While the Big Ten proved to be deeper on New Year's Day than a lot of experts previously thought (with Wisconsin's and Penn State's solid wins against SEC foes), USC showed that the Big Ten's second-best team was vastly overrated. It wasn't the win itself that made such a claim possible; it wasn't the parade of sacks registered against Chad Henne; it wasn't even the 3rd and 10 touchdown scored by Jarrett that gave USC breathing room after Michigan closed within eight points earlier in the fourth quarter. It was this final savage attack on the Wolverines' woefully inadequate secondary that turned a lot of heads in the college football world... and we're not talking about Michigan's corners, either.
It needs to be said, in the aftermath of this game, that Michigan was still treated unfairly by the college football world. Had there been a playoff or some more equitable method of arriving at a national champion, Michigan would have had a chance to compete for the brass ring. Perhaps, on a small but noticeable level, a part of the Wolverines didn't care quite as much about this game as did a Trojan team that was smarting and wounded after a stunning loss to UCLA on Dec. 2. In a fairer world, Michigan would have been able to play a game it wanted to compete in. This reality should not be forgotten after a splendid season of football in Ann Arbor. Lloyd Carr earned the right to avoid extreme criticism for several seasons after the body of work he produced in 2006.
However, in the final analysis, it still stands that a four-pass sequence midway through the fourth quarter made this familiar Rose Bowl a bloodbath beyond anything USC and Michigan fans are accustomed to. Yes, the Trojans upheld their historical advantage over the Wolverines in Pasadena, winning the eighth encounter between these programs on January 1 (or 2). The way in which Troy triumphed, though, was shocking by any reasonable standard, and that--as much as SC's win itself--is the big story of a night when "Conquest" once again rang out in all its brassy glory.