ORANGE BOWL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

8 p.m. n Chs. 2,7 n Pro Player Stadium, Miami n Records: USC (12-0), Oklahoma (12-0)

Keys to the game

1. Battle of Heisman winners: The matchup between Heisman Trophy winners -- 2004 honoree Matt Leinart of USC and 2003 winner Jason White of Oklahoma -- is a first in a national championship game. Leinart, a 6-foot-5 lefty, threw for 28 touchdowns this year (with six interceptions) while White, a 6-3 right-hander, had 33 touchdowns (and six picks). Each is capable of having career performances, but each is also susceptible to mistakes. Leinart is coming off the only zero-touchdown game of his two-year career as a starter, against UCLA, while White struggled in last year's Bowl Championship Series title game against LSU.

2. Battle of Heisman hopefuls: The game's potential gamebreakers, tailbacks Reggie Bush of USC and Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma, are two of the most dangerous players in the country. Both are capable of breaking long runs, and Bush is also his team's second-leading receiver. Bush, a 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore, had only two games over 100 yards rushing, including a career-best 204 against UCLA on 15 carries with two touchdowns. But he is fast and hard to catch in the open field, and he creates a touchdown every 14 times he touches the ball. Peterson, a 6-2, 210-pound freshman, rushed for over 100 yards in all but one game and broke the NCAA freshman record for carries with 314.

3. Defense wins championships: Though both teams are celebrated for their offensive star power, each has its share of big playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. The Trojans are better across the board, ranking in the top 10 in every defensive category except passing yards allowed. One of the key players for the Trojans will be fifth-year senior linebacker Matt Grootegoed. A former tailback and quarterback who actually started ahead of Leinart in high school for a while, Grootegoed was switched from safety to linebacker when coach Pete Carroll arrived at USC, and has flourished there. The biggest question mark for the Sooners will be in the defensive backfield, where coach Bob Stoops made a couple of late-season changes. It will be interesting to see if the Trojans try to exploit freshman cornerback Marcus Walker, who took over for junior Eric Bassey with three games left.

When USC has the ball

The Trojans will look to see if their leading rusher, LenDale White, is able to be effective after getting hurt in practice. If White is still hobbled, Carroll has the option of going with Bush or second-year freshman Desmond Reed at tailback.

Leinart's favorite target tonight might be freshman wide-out Dwayne Jarrett, who at 6-5 has a distinct height advantage on just about anybody the Sooners have to match up with him. Jarrett caught 12 touchdowns and came on strong toward the end of the season, and could be USC's not-so-secret weapon.

Expect offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who earned his reputation as a play-calling genius at Brigham Young and North Carolina State, to show his team's entire repertoire and then some. If the offensive line can give Leinart time to throw -- and Bush time to get open -- the Trojans could run away.

When Oklahoma has the ball

The game plan is pretty simple -- give the ball to Peterson and get out of the way. The freshman is college football's most punishing runner for his age (19) since the days of Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson, and it will be up to the USC defense to bring him down.

Jason White often gets overlooked because of Peterson's brilliance, but the sixth-year senior is his team's most important player. He demonstrated in last season's closing losses to Kansas State and LSU what happens when he is not at his best.

If the Trojans have success early in slowing down Peterson, White will have to do what he did last season by going early and often to the air. Senior Mark Clayton might not be as explosive a receiver as he was early in his career, but he is coming off a terrific game (eight catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns) against Colorado for the Big 12 championship.

Special teams

One of the most intriguing stories in this year's game is Oklahoma's freshman kicker, Garrett Hartley. A former soccer goalkeeper who led his Texas club team to a national championship two years ago, Hartley "retired" from that sport and wound up in Norman on a football scholarship.

After not playing in the first 10 games, Hartley replaced three-year starter Trey DiCarlo, who last season set an NCAA record for extra points and tied the school record by making 14 straight field goals. But DiCarlo's struggles late in the season led to the switch. Hartley has yet to kick a field goal in a game.

Senior kicker Ryan Killeen has been erratic for the Trojans this season, making 14 of 23 field-goal attempts, but he finished strong by going 7-for-7 in the last two games, including five straight in a narrow win over UCLA. Killeen is 57-for-57 on extra-point tries in his career.

USC could have another edge in Bush, who averaged 16 yards a punt return this season and more than 26 yards on kickoff returns. Bush returned two punts for touchdowns this season. Antonio Perkins had a punt return for a touchdown for Oklahoma, and Mark Bradley averaged 18.4 yards a kick return.

Coaches

Carroll and Stoops took different roads to get where they are, but they have now put together the two premier programs in the country. Both come from defensive backgrounds, and have given their offensive coordinators much latitude in the play-calling.

After a long career in the NFL, including being the head coach for one season with the New York Jets and three with the New England Patriots, Carroll was out of football in 2000 and he has said that it might have been the best thing for his coaching longevity.

Stoops helped build the program at Kansas State and helped Florida win a national championship under Steve Spurrier, but he has since made his mark as one of the game's top head coaches. He won a national championship in his second season at Oklahoma.

After his play-calling was questioned at the end of last year's Sugar Bowl -- the Sooners passed the last nine plays they had the ball -- Stoops went back to Norman with the idea of running a more balanced attack this season. Now that he has it, Oklahoma will be tough to stop if it gets a lead.

Prediction

Stoops is too good a coach to lose two BCS national championship games in a row, and White is much healthier than he was last season. But the difference tonight will be Peterson, who has yet to be stopped in a big game.

Oklahoma 28, USC 24

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