A Rose by any other name

The organizers of the Orange Bowl squeezed a bit of juice out of the BCS when they leap-frogged the Rose and Sugar Bowls by selecting the Pac and Big Ten Co-Champions. By taking two teams historically known for their Rose Bowl affiliation, they managed to not only capture a nation's attention by matching, arguably, the two best teams in college football, but they also shook the series up and turned tradition on its ear.

When can a rose by any other name smell as sweet?  Come January 2, 2003 that answer for the USC Trojans or Iowa Hawkeyes will be when it is an orange.  For the other, the Florida citrus will turn, unfortunately, to very bitter fruit. 

 

The organizers of the Fed Ex Orange Bowl squeezed a bit of juice out of the Bowl Championship Series when they leap-frogged the Rose and Sugar Bowls by selecting the Pac and Big Ten Co-Champions.  By taking two teams historically known for their Rose Bowl affiliation, they managed to not only capture a nation's attention by matching, arguably, the two best teams in college football, but they also shook the series up and turned tradition on its ear. 

 

Tradition is something hard fought for and never easily forgotten.  Thank Heaven for the later because up until this most recent season, it seemed as though tradition, or history, was the only thing keeping the USC Trojans football program alive.  Now, however, thanks to Pete Carroll and his staff, Trojan fans have experienced a near "renaissance" in college football.  Two historically great college programs, USC and Notre Dame were reawakened this year through superb coaching and outstanding talent.  The nation quickly embraced the traditional powers in the same way boxing fans might welcome back champion heavyweights from an era long past.  The hunger for talented, traditional rivals seemed almost lost and it became apparent how important these sort of matchups are to college football by the tremendous national interest to this year's USC vs. Notre Dame matchup.

 

More television sets were tuned to the game than in the last two decades of the rivalry's history.  The booty for the winner was predicted to be great and the results easily equaled the prophecy.   USC gained such significant ground in the BCS rankings that instead of playing in the second tier Holiday Bowl, they found themselves to be the desired prize for as many as three of the four BCS matchups.  They also added another jewel to their crown when Carson Palmer won the school's fifth Heisman Trophy.  Even Carson astutely noted, had any of the other Heisman candidates played Notre Dame that late in the season, they too might have won the award.  Carson left out one small fact - his fellow Heisman nominees would have had to have played as brilliantly as he did against Notre Dame's top ranked defense.  Carson was magnificent, shredding an All American secondary and surely captured the lion's share of Heisman votes from that performance.  Adding a fifth Heisman to USC's collection updates and renews the luster to the previous four.  It also eliminates any perception that the USC Trojans were ancient history and places the program back atop its rightful place of college football's hierarchy. 

 

To remain at these lofty heights and be considered year in and year out as one of the nation's elite, the USC Trojans must first dispose of a very talented Iowa Hawkeye team.  A team hell bent on preventing that from happening and claiming their own share of the national spotlight.  Peeling away the first layer of the orange allows one to see that there is more at stake than a bowl victory.  That said, it is clear that without it, other advances for either program will be difficult to come by.

 

At first glance USC and Iowa seem hardly comparable, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that a victory for either club will be, like tradition, something hard fought for and not easily forgotten. 

 

Both teams are lead by coaches relatively new to their respective programs.  Carroll, in his second year, has brought life back into the Trojans, taking them from a rocky 6-6 in 2001 to an unpredicted 10-2 in 2002.  Similarly, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz resuscitated the Hawkeyes from near doom.  In 1999, his first year at Iowa, Coach Ferentz saw his Hawkeye team win just one game.  It was, however, in that last battle and the week leading up to it, that the Ferentz saw the future and fight of his program.

 

"I go back still to the '99 season, that last ballgame versus Minnesota," Ferentz said. "We had our best week of practice, probably played our best game of the year that year and we were 1-9.  "That, to me, tells me the attitude is where it needs to be. As long as your attitude is good, you've got a chance."

 

That attitude appeared to pay off last season, when Iowa went 7-5 and won the Alamo Bowl.

"Winning a bowl game does so much for setting the tone," Ferentz said. "The difference between 7-5 last year and 6-6 is... it's major, just in terms of the attitude.  I'll say what I said four years ago,  I really was very confident coming back here. I've always felt strongly that we can be successful here at Iowa.  All the things are in place here to have success.  I think you just try to have a plan, you work the plan, and let the results come as they may."  That "attitude" has helped build one of the most successful seasons in Hawkeye history.

 

So like Carroll for the Trojans, Ferentz has brought the "swagger" back to his Hawkeye program.  They are 11-1 for the 2002 season.  USC is 10-2 but hungry for more.  Currently ranked fifth in the nation, a victory for the Trojans could leave ranked as high as number two in the nation, with a number three ranking easily within their grasp.  The simple logic for this is SC's number one ranked schedule coupled with the mathematics BCS system.  There is not a team above USC with a schedule ranked within reaching distance of what the Trojans have faced.  This includes Iowa.  So, with a Miami victory and Trojan victory the computers will do the rest and only the top spot will elude USC this season.  Even if the Trojans were to lose, they will still finish the season ranked higher than they have in nearly a decade.  But Pete Carroll and this "revitalized" version of the USC Trojans is not heading into Miami with anything but victory on their minds.  To win, though, SC is going to have to play the most talented team they have faced since playing Kansas State at the beginning of the year.

 

The Iowa Hawkeyes feature five players combined who were listed to 1st and 2nd teams of the AP's All America list.  They will also field the Heisman runner up and AP player of the year and Davey O'Brien winner as the nation's top quarterback in Brad Banks as well as, Dallas Clark a 6'4" 244lb, consensus All American who won the John Mackey Award as college football's best tight end after catching 39 passes for an average of 16.5 yards and of course, Nate Kaeding, the Lou Groza Award honoring the top kicker.  The Hawkeyes have players.  The type of men you don't build a program around, but on.  Ferentz loves his players and they love him.  Against SC they will go with three down linemen and four backers, using an extra linebacker to try and cover the underneath stuff the Trojans got healthy off of throughout the season.  Traditionally Iowa goes with a front four, but because of SC's speed, they'll be forced to make the switch, unless they just can't get to Palmer.  They have to get to Carson if they want to save their secondary from the type of punishment Palmer inflicted on teams like Oregon, Ucla and Notre Dame.  Iowa's corners and safeties are ranked 109th nationally, playing in a league not known for the passing game.  Against the Trojans this could spell trouble.  Speed seems to be Iowa's biggest concern when it comes to the Trojans.

 

Just ask Iowa linebacker Fred Barr if the Trojans are tough enough to play with the Hawkeyes?  "No." "You just hit them in the mouth," Barr said bluntly. "That's the only thing you can do with speed. You can't really defend speed, you just got to hit them in the mouth.  They catch a ball, you give them a headache," Barr said. "You try and intimidate them rather than try to catch up to their team speed."   Tight End Dallas Clark added his own take on the physical side of the game USC just isn't used to...  "Beat 'em up. Pound 'em. Wear 'em down. Win.  We're going to play our game, and they're going to play their game.  We'll find out who the better team is at the end."

 

The first thought that comes to my mind is Mr. Clark, say hello to Mr. Grootegoed and Mr. Polamalu.  You'll be seeing a lot of them today.  Hope you enjoy the experience, Mr. Siedman did.   Barr and Clark were two of several Hawkeye football players who made bold statements Friday as they prepared to face the Trojans.

 

Coach Ferentz knows all too well that USC is anything but one-dimensional or afraid of a little contact... "What you saw on TV in that Notre Dame game is really what they are," Ferentz said. "They've got a great group of athletes who are very well-coached. They're offense is going to pose a lot of problems for us. Very, very athletic, very active and very aggressive on the defensive side of the ball. They probably run as well as anyone we've played this year, if you look at the collective group of them, they are very tough."

 

Iowa feels that perhaps their ultimate advantage could be with the twelfth man.  They plan on bringing 40,000 to 60,000 fans to Pro Player Stadium to instill a sort of "home crowd" environment for the Hawkeye team.  What they don't realize is that a few Trojans who have been living with the idea of playing in the Orange Bowl their entire lives.

 

Trojan fans quickly think of Mike Williams and Mike Ross as the instant Florida to USC connection.  What most don't know is there's a star on the SC club who's been wearing an Orange Bowl ring since high school. Tight End Alex Holmes has possession of an Orange Bowl ring - it belongs to his father. 

 

"Alex used to wear my Orange Bowl ring when he was in High School.  I don't know if he really understood what that ring meant.  He now gets a chance to earn his own hardware.  He can put a face value on that ring he wore so easily.  I have rings from 2 Big Ten Championships plus the Orange Bowl.  I took so much pride in those rings."

 

Mike Holmes was a star defensive end for the 1975 Michigan Wolverines. Coached by "the legend" Bo Schembechler, the Wolverines faced the number two ranked Oklahoma Sooners for the National Championship.  Ironically Alex's father was then drafted and ended up signing with the Tampa Bay Buccanneers, coached by SC's own "walking on water" man, John McKay.  After signing with Tampa Bay, Mike Holmes decided to pursue business interests overseas but he remembers all too clearly his Orange Bowl game and how this level of competition has effected his son...

 

"For the first time in his career at USC, Alex is just beginning to taste what it feels like to win and be an elite team.  I knew that feeling my whole college career.  I went to Miami 26 years ago a SR DE on one of the best defense's in the NCAA.  I faced what some say was the 4th best college football teams of all times the 75 Oklahoma Sooners.  They featured the triple option with Joe Washington one of the best college RB's and soon to be NFL RB and Billy Brooks at WR.  Oklahoma had the Selmon Bros on D who also went on to the NFL and played for coach John McKay."

 

Mike Holmes is thrilled with the success USC has had since Coach Carroll and his staff arrived, but even back in the 70's and playing for Bo, Mike knew how special John McKay was... "I came so close to playing for Coach McKay and seeing for myself the greatness of the man.  Who  would have ever know than 26 years later my son would play for the Trojans?"

 

The ‘75 Wolverines took as circuitous route to the Orange Bowl as did today's Trojans, perhaps even moreso.  Mr. Holmes explains... "I was on that Michigan team that was denied its right to play in the Rose Bowl as the Co Big Ten champion because our QB Dennis Franklin was injured in the Ohio State game and was questionable to play in the Rose Bowl.  Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke decided himself that Ohio State would go to the Rose Bowl to represent the Big Ten even though they had gone the year before and by rule it was Michigan turn to go.  Coach Bo was so upset that we were not going to a Bowl game after finishing the season 10-0-1 that he took it upon himself to change the rule that the Big Ten and the Pac Ten could play in the Rose Bowl only.  How many teams have benefited from this rule?  That is how I ended up playing in the Orange Bowl 26 years ago in a game that turned out to be for the National Championship. That is the winning tradition that I have tried to instill into my son since I coached him as a small boy in T-ball, baseball and basketball."

 

Maybe this connection, along with freshman sensation Mike Williams and future star, Mike Ross will be SC's own special advantage.  Certainly one very famous Trojan saw oranges in the future... A few years ago at Trojan Media Day, during an interview with Petros Papadakis I asked him what his post collegiate plans were.  Uncertain, he quipped that he might just buy a box of oranges and sell them on a street corner.  I remember SID Tim Tessalone looking over, monitoring the q&a.  Perhaps he logged the thought of oranges in his mind and shared it later with Mike Garrett.  Or perhaps, as is the case with most things said and done by Petros Papadakis, people seem to be paying attention.  All I know is that Petros will be wandering around Miami with a box of oranges tucked under one arm and a bottle of vodka in the other, trying to conjure up some form of excitement.  That street corner may not be Jefferson and Figueroa or anywhere near 6th in San Pedro, but somehow Petros will help the Trojans make it their home. 

 

To truly make a statement to the nation that USC is back, the Trojans have much to accomplish.  There is so much on the line.  High school sensation, Chris Leak has visited both schools and lists both in his top five, top Florida recruits will be there to see this new version of the USC Trojans, Brad Banks and Carson Palmer will show the nation who truly is the better quarterback, Coaches Carroll and Ferentz will meet again as former NFL coaches, Lane Kiffin will get a chance to spread some more of his magic key to which, will be getting by a very talented Iowa Hawkeye team, bent on taking whatever glory the Trojans have been experiencing and so the Orange Bowl has, for this season, brought to the Trojans the same level of glory that was traditionally attributed to the program through the Rosebowl.  For some Trojans it is an awkward fit, but for others it is the dream of a lifetime.

 

Iowa will showcase their talents starting with a dominate offensive line.  The Trojans will answer that with the best defensive front the Hawkeyes have faced. Udeze, Riley, Patterson and Nazel have a tremendous combination of strength and speed. Iowa's very mobile quarterback, Brad Banks, will give SC's defense all it can handle, but SC's Carson Palmer coupled with the fastest and finest skill position players in the nation will melt down the Hawkeye secondary.  Iowa's going to go smashmouth and USC is going to spread them out. When Iowa tries to go wide, or roll Banks right or left, he'll be greeted by Groots, Simmons and Pollard.  None of those three are the biggest linebackers around, but they are heavy hitters.  And never has Iowa seen the likes of Williams, Holmes, MacKenzie, Kelly, Colbert, McCullough and Fargas.  They can talk about having "seen speed and being able to hang with it," but they haven't seen anything like SC all season long. 

 

If Iowa has any questions regarding SC's talent they need only ask Kansas State's Defensive Coordinator, Bob Elliott who worked at Iowa just the year before.  He managed a victory against SC early in the season and at the tail end of three tough pre-season games for the Trojans.  The hometown K-State crowd never let up and SC failed to find their legs until the fourth quarter.  The Trojans turned it into a fight to the finish that Elliott and Co. were happy to walk away from...

 

"The Trojans are faster and more dangerous than any offense Iowa has played this season. Offensively, they're very, very talented,  They're along the lines of Texas and some other teams in our league.  They have sprinters in the backfield. All three of their running backs are very fast. Sultan McCullough is one of the fastest players in all of college football."

 

"The thing about Southern Cal is that they have really good athletes on defense. They're a very pressure-oriented team. They zone-blitz a lot. They're just outstanding on defense. They're a really scary team."

 

Should the Hawkeyes be afraid, no.  They have a very good offense and will move the ball, but they won't find SC soft in many areas.  SC matches up well with the Iowa and for all accounts it should be the best of the bowl games this season.  I like SC, but it could be said I'm biased.  Few sportswriters are picking the Hawkeyes, but then probably none picked the Utes in last seasons fiasco in Vegas.  This Trojan team has matured greatly since that end of season debacle.  They've learned about tradition, pride and what it takes and means to be a truly "winning" program.  They've also learned that football should be fun, for if it is, then passion grows.  This is a passionate ball club that will not let Brad Banks or any other Hawkeye steal their thunder.  This is the best Trojan team in a long while but they are only the beginning of the return to excellence. 

 

USC 41  IOWA 29

 


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