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 California touchdowns in the second quarter of the Orange Bowl, the season-long filibuster on the BCS rankings suddenly became a moot point.
Or, for the top-ranked Trojans, lots of points.
Turning a bunch of bumbles and two fumbles by the second-ranked Sooners into nearly immediate scores, USC (13-0) embarrassed Oklahoma by taking a 28-point halftime lead and cruising to a 55-19 victory before 77,912 fans. In winning the 11th national championship in school history, the Trojans stretched the nation's longest Division I-A winning streak to 22 games.
"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."
Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, named the game's Most Valuable Player last night, tied 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 defense also shut down freshman tailback Adrian Peterson, holding the Heisman runner-up to 82 yards on 25 carries.
"I couldn't imagine this situation two or three years ago under Carson Palmer," Leinart said of his former mentor and fellow Heisman Trophy winner. "I learned a lot from him during our time and it feels great to fill his shoes. This is a great feeling and I'm proud of my teammates."
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 (12-1) since Bob Stoops came to Norman in 1999, and the worst for Oklahoma in 38 bowl games, including 18 appearances in the Orange Bowl.
"USC played extremely well tonight and they are certainly deserving of the national championship," Stoops said. "You can't make as many mistakes as we did and expect to win."
The victory gave the Trojans 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 title with LSU last season after the Tigers beat Oklahoma, 21-14, in the Nokia Sugar Bowl. The domination by the Trojans also ended any talk of No. 3 Auburn (13-0) sharing the title.
After silencing the mostly pro-Oklahoma crowd with a 38-10 halftime lead - by the end of the third quarter the place was 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 and later adding Ryan Killeen's second field goal of the game.
Meanwhile, the only consolation for the Sooners was that they were not booed off the field, as happened again to halftime entertainer, Ashlee Simpson.
Oklahoma was totally out of synch after taking a 7-0 lead on the game's opening possession.
When tailback LenDale White scored 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." 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 where the Sooners beat Florida State for the BCS championbship in 2000.
It appeared on Oklahoma's opening possession that the Sooners in general, and Jason White in particular, had come into this year's BCS championship game in much better shape than last year. In a 12-play, 92-yard drive, White showed his ability to scramble and throw off the run.
In completing three of his first four passes, White rolled left and hit Will Peoples for an 18-yard gain, rolled left again and found Travis Wilson for a 20-yarder, ran out of trouble before connecting with Mark Bradley for 32 yards more and stayed in the pocket before firing a bullet to Wilson for a 4-yard touchdown.
But the mistakes that hurt Oklahoma in last year's Sugar Bowl loss to LSU and haunted the Sooners for months began to resurface and wouldn't end.
Leinart led USC on its first scoring drive, starting it from his team's 25-yard line with a 12-yard pass to Dwayne Jarrett and finishing it with back-to-back passes to Dominique Byrd that covered the last 50 yards. The 6-3, 260-pound tight end went up twice to grab passes, the second with one hand for a 33-yard score.
The defensive breakdowns by Oklahoma's pass defense proved to be only the beginning of what turned out to be a long night for the Sooners.
USC got the first significant break of the game on what was certainly the biggest gaffe of Oklahoma's season, but not its last of the game After the Sooners forced the Trojans to punt, Mark Bradley tried to pick up a bouncing ball deep in his team's territory. He was quickly stripped by Collin Ashton, and the ball was recovered at the 6.
LenDale White, USC's leading rusher this season who had started the game on the bench after nursing a sprained ankle for the past couple of weeks, barreled in for a touchdown that helped the Trojans take a 14-7 lead with 17 seconds left in the opening quarter.
By the end of the second quarter, it was no longer a game.
Unfortunately for the Sooners, Bradley's botched punt return wasn't the last faux pas of the half. The next time Oklahoma had the ball, White inexplicably threw into triple coverage trying to find Mark Clayton and the pass was easily intercepted by safety Jason Leach at the USC 11.
It didn't take long for the Sooners to pay for their second turnover. After Leinart moved the Trojans out of trouble by hitting Jarrett for a first down with an 18-yard pass on third-and-eight from the 26, Leinart quickly went back to his favorite receiver. Jarrett beat safety Brodney Poole down the far sideline for a 46-yard touchdown catch.
The third turnover for the Sooners followed, with the same horrendous result. On third-and-13 from his team's 17, White was hit as he threw. Helped by the fact that Clayton had slipped momentarily, cornerback Eric Wright easily intercepted and returned the ball to the 10. Three plays later, Leinart hit Smith for a 5-yard touchdown.