MIAMI - Any debate about this season's college football national championship ended quickly last night at Pro Player Stadium. Amid a flurry of Oklahoma turnovers and Southern Cal touchdowns in the second quarter of the Orange Bowl, the season-long filibuster on the Bowl Championship Series rankings suddenly became a moot point.
Or, for the top-ranked Trojans, lots of points.
Turning a bunch of bumbles and fumbles by the Sooners into nearly immediate scores, USC (13-0) embarrassed Oklahoma by taking a 28-point halftime lead and cruising to a 55-19 victory. In winning the 11th national championship in school history, the Trojans stretched the nation's longest Division I-A winning streak to 22 games.
In the final Associated Press poll released early this morning, USC received 62 of 65 first-place votes in finishing first. Auburn, which also finished 13-0 after winning the Sugar Bowl on Monday night, got the three other first-place votes and was ranked second. Oklahoma (12-1) finished No. 3.
Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart set an Orange Bowl record with five touchdown passes, three of them to wide receiver Steve Smith. Along with intercepting last year's Heisman winner, Jason White, three times, USC's lightning-quick defense forced two fumbles and shut down freshman tailback Adrian Peterson, holding the Heisman runner-up to 82 yards on 25 carries.
It proved to be the biggest rout in a BCS championship game, and the largest margin of victory in a national championship game since Nebraska crushed Florida, 62-24, in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. The loss was by far the worst for the Sooners since Bob Stoops came to Norman in 1999, and the worst for Oklahoma in 38 bowl games, including 18 appearances in the Orange Bowl.
The Trojans won their first outright national championship since 1972 - the last time USC went 12-0 - and their second title in as many years, having shared the championship with LSU last season after the Tigers beat Oklahoma, 21-14, in the BCS title game at the Sugar Bowl. The domination by the Trojans also ended any talk of Auburn sharing the title.
"We just went out and played football the way we wanted to play it," said USC coach Pete Carroll. "We didn't expect it to be this easy, but the game went our way from the beginning. I was a little surprised, but we controlled all phases of the game tonight."
Said Stoops: "USC played extremely well tonight and they are certainly deserving of the national championship. They controlled the line of scrimmage on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. You can't make as many mistakes as we did tonight and expect to win."
Trailing 7-0 after Oklahoma scored on a 12-play, 92-yard drive on its opening possession, USC immediately tied the game with the help of a spectacular, one-handed catch by tight end Dominique Byrd that resulted in a 33-yard touchdown, and then kept capitalizing on one Sooners mistake after another.
The first was, from a mental standpoint, the costliest. It came on the ensuing USC possession after the Sooners forced the Trojans to punt. Senior Mark Bradley tried to pick up a ball that was still bouncing deep in Oklahoma territory and lost it at the 6-yard line. LenDale White immediately plowed into the end zone for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
"I have no idea why Mark would have done that," Stoops said later. "I was as shocked as everyone in the stadium. How do you explain that? I don't know, that goes back to Pop Warner football. Mark should have made a better decision.'
But Bradley wasn't alone in making poor choices. After leading the Sooners on their opening drive by connecting on three of four passes, two of them on the run, Jason White had a horrendous night. His first interception came after he threw into triple coverage, his second came after receiver Mark Clayton fell down.
The Trojans continued scoring. A 54-yard pass from Leinart to freshman wide-out Dwayne Jarrett helped push the lead to 21-7. A 5-yard pass from Leinart to Smith, the first of the three scores to the sophomore wide-out who had missed part of the season with a broken leg, made it 28-7.
Sooners fans got a brief respite from their misery when freshman Garrett Hartley made a 29-yard field goal on the first attempt of his career with 3:10 left in the first half, Smith caught a 33-yard touchdown pass and USC finished the half with a 44-yard field goal by Ryan Killeen.
Silencing the mostly pro-Oklahoma crowd of 77,912 - by the end of the third quarter the place was more than half-empty - USC picked up where it left off, scoring on its first possession of the third quarter on a 4-yard pass from Leinart to Smith.
Leinart finished 18-for-35 for 332 yards, with Smith catching seven passes for 113 yards and Jarrett grabbing five for 115 yards. LenDale White, whose status for the game was in doubt after suffering a sprained ankle in practice, carried 15 times for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the only consolation for the Sooners was that they were not booed off the field, as happened again to halftime entertainer Ashlee Simpson. But Oklahoma was totally out of sync after the opening possession.
"They made really good plays; matter of fact they made great plays," said Oklahoma cornerback Marcus Walker. "One-handed catches, great runs, everything, that's the way the dice rolls."
When LenDale White scored on an 8-yard run - on fourth-and-goal - with a little under 10 minutes left to help push the lead to 55-10, the USC fans started yelling at the Sooners, "Overrated! Overrated!" Even Walker didn't buy the fact that the Trojans could have been accused of running up the score.
"I think people have accused Oklahoma of doing that, so now we're on the other side of the fence," Walker said.
It was the largest margin of defeat for an Oklahoma team since a 68-7 loss to Nebraska in 1997, and came on the same field when the Sooners beat Florida State for the BCS championship in 2000. Jason White summed up the feelings of his teammates when asked how he felt.
"Disappointed," said White, whose stats (24-for-36 for 244 yards and two touchdowns) belied the reality of his second straight BCS championship game nightmare. "Embarrassed."
The Trojans were at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. As they stood on the podium while Carroll, Leinart and the team's other captains accepted the crystal football synonymous with being college football's national champion, Southern California had silenced its cynics and the BCS filibusters as well.
"Leave no doubt," Byrd said. "That's what we did."