After months-long wait, a title game for the ages

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI - From a distance of nearly 2,500 miles, over the course of two college football seasons, Southern California and Oklahoma have eyed each other like a couple of battle-tested heavyweight champions, ready to decide which will wear the unified belt.

A year ago, a potential meeting for the Bowl Championship Series national title was derailed by the only blemishes on their respective schedules: The Trojans lost midway through the season to California, and the Sooners dropped the Big 12 championship game to Kansas State.

Tonight, the two teams that have stayed on top of all the rankings and polls since the preseason will finally get together on the same field at Pro Player Stadium, when top-ranked USC (12-0) plays No. 2 Oklahoma (12-0) in the Orange Bowl.

This confrontation between these two star-driven teams - it marks the first time Heisman Trophy winners will face each other for the national championship - is perhaps the most anticipated game since the BCS was established in 1998.

Though it will come down to the performances of Heisman-winning quarterbacks Matt Leinart of USC and Jason White of Oklahoma, along with the two tailbacks who were Heisman finalists this season, Trojans sophomore Reggie Bush and Sooners freshman Adrian Peterson, the preparation by the respective coaches will figure into the equation.

"The buildup has been really a challenge," said USC coach Pete Carroll, whose Trojans will put a Division I-A-best 21-game winning streak on the line. "Hopefully, we've challenged them as well, but I think the fact that they're so fast and they're so athletic and they're so good, that kind of overrides the fun of the quest to try to figure out how to beat them. We'll see how it turns out."

Said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops: "It's incredible when you look at the tradition and history and all the undefeated teams."

The programs have combined to win 15 national championships, including a shared title in 1974.

This marks the third time in the past five years that Stoops, who came to Oklahoma in 1999, has played in a BCS championship game. The Sooners upset Florida State in the January 2001 Orange Bowl and lost a year ago to LSU in the Sugar Bowl. Carroll, who came to USC from the NFL in 2001, rebuilt the Trojans and led them to a share of the national championship last year after beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Though it's expected to be a matchup of high-scoring offenses, the respective defenses are formidable as well.

"They're very good," Leinart said of the Oklahoma defense. "Like Coach [Norm] Chow [the offensive coordinator] said, they don't really have any weaknesses on defense. I think it's going to be important for us to establish our game plan, just kind of do the things that we've been doing all year. We're not going to be doing anything different just because it's the national championship game."

Said Oklahoma offensive coordinator Chuck Long: "You can see that they've played together for a while and they have good chemistry and have good trust in each other, and so do we. We feel good about our team going in and what we're able to do against them in this game."

Long sees a lot of similarities between this game and the one the Sooners played against Florida State four years ago. The path to the national championship was nearly the same, down to the fact that Oklahoma had struggles on the road in places like Texas A&M; and Oklahoma State, then won the Big 12 championship game in Kansas City, Mo.

"It's kind of eerie in a way," said Long.

The difference this time is that, though a slight underdog to the Trojans, the Sooners have been under the microscope for the past four years. Stoops recalled yesterday the big deal fans in Norman made when the team, ranked 18th going into the 2000 season, made it through unbeaten. There were large crowds greeting the team at the airport on its return from some regular-season games and the Big 12 title game.

This year, the airport was mostly empty.

"Now, they expect us to win," Stoops said.

There is also a matter of unfinished business for the Sooners after last season, especially for White. It was the main reason White, who had missed two years because of injuries to both his knees, applied for a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA. A player who is motivated by criticism, White was on a mission this season.

"A lot of guys on the team made the decision to come back, and the reason to come back was to win the Big 12 championship and win this game," White said. "I think we worked hard to do that, and we made it."

The memory of last season's loss to LSU at the Superdome in New Orleans still burns deeply in White and his teammates.

"I think the biggest thing that sticks in my head was the e-mails that I got after the Sugar Bowl, just saying that I need to give back the Heisman Trophy, quit the team," White recalled. "Stuff like that motivates me. I felt like it's a great opportunity to come back, play another season and once again prove myself. I guess last year wasn't enough."

The difference tonight for the Sooners could likely be Peterson. He finished second to Leinart in the Heisman voting - the highest ever for a freshman - and has played his best in big games. It seems likely USC will stack the line trying to stop Peterson and make White win the game with his passing.

Similarly, the Sooners seem more concerned with Bush than they do with Leinart and his receivers. Bush, whose teammates voted him the Trojans' most valuable player, produces a touchdown in some fashion (running, returning kicks, even throwing one score) every 14 times he has the ball.

Asked if he expects a shootout or a defensive struggle, Bush said: "It could go both ways. It could be a defensive game or an offensive game. It's really hard to say. We have to wait until game time comes to find out."

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