Final Thoughts - Rose Bowl review

It was a special day on New Years for Trojan fans with one of the more satisfying Rose Bowl wins these eyes have seen. Not only did USC beat Michigan by a score of 32-18 but they did it in a fashion that reminded everybody around the country, including themselves, of just how powerful and explosive this Trojan program has become.

Coming into the game there were so many questions about where this team was headed after suffering a tough loss to UCLA and having fallen twice in a row at the Rose Bowl stadium. We knew Michigan was a formidable opponent, no doubt about that, and they had been built up by many as a team so talented that they only lost to vaunted Ohio State by three points. It's amazing to think that the Trojans, winners of 55 of their previous 59 games, would be standing on such a brink prior to the game but it was true. So many prognosticators picked the Wolverines while the Trojan practices leading up to the game seemed to lack the energy and fire that we had seen in recent years. Coach Pete Carroll, ever the optimist, even commented about how his team was ready even though they didn't appear to be but Carroll himself was being faced with the annual rumors of NFL job openings while trying to make sure his team was up for the game. Yes, the Trojans were potentially two batted down passes away from an appearance in the national title game but there was also a familiar theme this year of struggling to find an offensive rhythm. For the first time in a long time, there was uncertainty heading into a bowl game about which Trojan team would show up and we all knew Michigan was capable of taking advantage of any shortcomings.

The one thing we definitely learned about the 2006 Trojans as we went through the season is that this team was a grinder. They may not have been as flashy or high profile as recent USC teams but they had a fighting spirit that won them a lot of football games and as we sit here reflecting on the Rose Bowl it was that kind of spirit which was so evident against Michigan, especially in the second half. The first half of the game was like a boxing match with two fighters punching it out and neither doing much damage. The running games for both teams were basically non-existent and that was a big relief for this writer because I was genuinely worried about Michigan running back Mike Hart. It didn't take long though for those fears to subside after seeing how much quicker our defense was than their offense. The Trojan defense played lights out in this game and they definitely set the tone and just waited for the offense to explode. I thought the best defensive series of the first half came after John David Booty had been stripped and fumbled the ball inside the Michigan 30 early in the second quarter. At that point the game was tied 3-3 and nobody had taken control yet. All of a sudden there was a sack by Brian Cushing with big help from Fili Moala, then another sack by Terrell Thomas on a corner blitz and then Sedrick Ellis came in with a sack of his own. There it was, three sacks on one Michigan possession and right then it felt like 2004 all over again. The defensive pressure we got in that game on John Navarre was relentless, USC had nine sacks, and now we were starting to exert the same kind of pressure on Chad Henne. Pete Carroll was blitzing from every angle and the USC defenders were playing with a lot of confidence with five sacks total in the first half.

The only thing missing so far for the Trojans was the offense but at some point in the locker room at halftime, based on discussions between the coaches, the decision was basically made to throw away the playbook and let John David Booty start chucking the ball all over the yard. The strategy almost worked in the 4th quarter of the comeback attempt vs Oregon State and you can definitely say it worked yesterday against Michigan. The Trojan coaches realized that getting a run game going against a very talented Wolverine front seven just wasn't something they could count on. In fact, the Wolverine secondary was considered the vulnerable spot in their defense which is why we had Trojan radio sideline reporter John Jackson, a former receiver, pleading for the Trojans to start throwing the ball downfield to take advantage of that mis-match.

The Trojans got a big break early in the third quarter when Henne threw a screen pass directly into the gut of Lawrence Jackson and LJ was able to hang onto the ball to give USC possession deep in Michigan territory. Shortly after that Booty found Chris McFoy in the end zone for the first touchdown of the game (that had to be such a sweet moment for McFoy) and then he followed that up with a touchdown pass to Dwayne Jarrett and suddenly the Trojans had a 16-3 lead.

The defense forced another turnover after Cushing caused a fumble which was recovered by LJ but the offense was unable to capitalize. It's hard to describe how well the Trojan defense, particularly the front seven, played in this game. Cushing was fantastic, as was Jackson, Ellis, Moala, Rivers, Lua and Sartz. After hearing so much about the Wolverine front seven, it was the Trojan front seven who really controlled this game.

A Danelo field goal made it 19-3 but Michigan came right back to score a touchdown, with a two-point conversion, to make it 19-11 and suddenly the maize and blue fans were back in the game. As championships team do, the Trojans simply answered that score with a score of their own as Booty once again led the team downfield before finally connecting with Jarrett who broke tackles and sprinted for the end zone to make it 25-11. Mario Danelo had missed his second extra point attempt of the day, a rare occurrence for a kicker who been so automatic this year.

Michigan tried to answer with a score of their own but came up short on a 4th down play deep in the Trojan end of the field and it was time for John David to put together perhaps the most defining drive of his career to this point. It was time to put the game away and John David hit Steve Smith on his first throw for a nice gain. Next came a completion to Jarrett and after that was a beautiful one handed grab by Fred Davis. With the ball on the Michigan seven, Booty then hit Smith in the middle of the end zone for the touchdown pass and the score was now 32-11 in favor of the Trojans and the victory was in sight. The precision of the drive is what impressed me the most, every single one of Booty's four passes was right on the money and each play attacked the Wolverine defense. At one point in the second half the Trojans threw the ball on 27 of 29 plays with the other two plays being quarterback sneaks. All told in the second half Booty threw for 289 yards and four touchdowns. Along the way we also saw Jarrett move into the top spot on the all-time USC receptions list and he was later named the Rose Bowl game MVP for his efforts.

There was a late Michigan touchdown which brought the final score to 32-18 and then the celebration was on once the final gun sounded. Chilo Rachal and Rey Maualuga doused Carroll with the traditional Gatorade bath. Players raced excitedly around the field while putting on Rose Bowl champion hats and t-shirts. Kyle Williams stood off the side for a moment, tears coming out of his eyes after such a gratifying performance on a field that had not been so kind to him just one month ago. Williams was part of an offensive line effort in this game that has to be given tremendous credit for the job they did against LaMarr Woodley and the rest of the Wolverine defensive front. They are just one group that deserves credit after a game that featured so many outstanding Trojan performances.

As we wake up today and realize the magnitude of what happened yesterday it's hard to imagine that there was any trepidation at all heading into the game. Instead, all seems right with the college football world as seen through Cardinal and Gold eyes. Our team has once again shown the kind of football we are capable of playing and you can be sure the rest of the country was paying attention. Remember, this was supposed to be considered a "rebuilding year" yet once again the Trojans are playing as well as anybody in the nation come bowl time. Don't believe it? OK, after watching the game yesterday go ahead and ask the Ohio State Buckeyes if they would rather play Florida next week or if they would want to line up against the Trojans. My guess is they would want to bring on the Gators. That's fine. We took our shots this year and came up short of that goal but nothing can take away from what this team accomplished on Monday night in Arroyo Seco. This was more than a football game, this was a reminder of what is possible. This was a statement about what is to come as well. Is there anybody out there who doesn't think the Trojans will head into the 2007 season as the top ranked team in the nation? That scenario definitely gives us something to look forward to but for now we get to bask in the long off-season with the glow of the Rose Bowl fresh in our memories. Thank you to the 2006 Trojan team for providing those memories and so many more from this season, it truly has been a fun ride.


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