It's time for USC, Texas to settle it

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PASADENA, Calif. -- A few days after Southern California's top-ranked football team stayed unbeaten by surviving a huge scare in November against Fresno State, Trojans coach Pete Carroll received an interesting phone call. It came from Texas coach Mack Brown.

"It really sounds a little facetious now, but really it was to congratulate him on being able to win 34 straight games," Brown said yesterday. "I've learned something from Pete out here. Pete says that if you keep talking about the streak and you keep thinking about the streak, they're more likely to end."

USC (12-0) is hoping that doesn't happen tonight in the BCS championship game at the Rose Bowl when the Trojans will shoot for their 35th straight victory and an unprecedented third straight national championship against the second-ranked Longhorns.

"This is what we've been waiting for," Carroll said. "You have to wait and hold. We've been holding and now we're ready to go. We're not tired in any way. I think as a team, we look fresh, we look healthy. They know what's coming."

The Longhorns are cautiously optimistic that what happened in last year's BCS title game in the Orange Bowl won't occur again. That's because Texas (12-0) believes it has a better game plan for USC - not to mention better players - than Oklahoma did in losing to the Trojans, 55-19.

"If you're in this game and you're not confident, you're in bad trouble," said Brown, whose Longhorns have won 19 straight. 'This isn't a week for a weak guy. You'd better walk with a swagger and you'd better feel good about yourself."

One thing is certain: In a matchup between the two highest-scoring teams in the country this season, defense and special teams will likely play a huge role in the game's outcome. What is uncertain is whether Texas has enough firepower to stay with what most consider to be one of the best teams in college football history.

Tailback Reggie Bush and quarterback Matt Leinart are the first teammates to play in a national championship game after having won the Heisman Trophy in successive seasons, but they are far from USC's only stars. The Trojans had six first-team All-Americans and reserve tailback LenDale White was on the third team.

Except for quarterback Vince Young, a first-team All-American himself and a distant runner-up to Bush for the Heisman, Texas doesn't have the same name recognition. But the Longhorns aren't slouches, with strong safety Michael Huff, defensive tackle Rod Wright and offensive tackle Jonathan Scott first-team All-Americans.

Unlike past championship games, there is only respect emanating from both teams, with glowing tributes rather than trash talk.

"You can't exploit anything against these guys," Carroll said. 'They're too well-balanced, too well-schooled, too experienced. You just have to try to survive the game with them. We're going to try to position ourselves play after play after play so we're where we're supposed to be."

Said Texas linebacker Aaron Harris: "I think they're the best team ever."

As dominant as the Trojans and Longhorns have been, both teams have their weaknesses.

An already young USC defense has been hit with injuries at linebacker throughout the season, and was exposed by the likes of Notre Dame and Fresno State before pulling out late victories. Young's inconsistencies have led to keeping opponents in games, as happened when Texas A&M; forced Texas to make a fourth-quarter comeback.

Given the nature of bowl games, it will be interesting to see if the teams look as dominant as they did a month ago, when USC blew out crosstown rival UCLA, 66-19, a few hours after Texas crushed Colorado, 70-3, in the Big 12 championship game.

Brown has compared the buildup to this year's BCS championship to a Super Bowl because of the history of the programs, the stars of the respective teams and the venue itself. The anticipation for this game has exceeded any of the previous six BCS title games.

"This game seems like it's been here forever, so you kind of keep the lid on it." Brown said of a game between teams that have been ranked first and second since the preseason poll came out in August. "You've got them boiling, you want them to simmer, but you've got to keep the lid on and make sure that you boil at the right time."

Experience plays a factor in how relaxed Carroll and his players seem.

"The fact that we've been in this situation, really it feels like for three or four years at this time of year, and we've had some experience of being in the spotlight for quite some time that it's been normal for us in a sense in that there's always something going on at practice, always a lot of people that want to get a piece of what our opinion is," Carroll said.

"We've had all the Heisman buildup that we've lived with over the years that really adds to the following and just places us in this position often. For our players, it's business as usual for us. That's not very exciting, but that's really what it is. More than anything, I want them to always be ready for what's coming so that they've have a sense of what to expect."

Not that the Longhorns are uptight.

"I feel like the guys know what it takes to win right now," said Young, who, like Bush, could be playing in his final college game tonight.

While Texas would like to think that last year's thrilling, 38-37 comeback win over Michigan here at the Rose Bowl will help it against the Trojans, USC almost seems immune to the pressure of playing on college football's biggest stage. It not only owns the stage, it owns the theater.

"I think the key factor is we've been here before," said Bush, certainly the biggest star in a game filled with them. "We've played in these types of games before, played in big games. We can help the younger guys adjust to it and show them how it's done."

Making history or repeating history, it's all the same to the Trojans.

The Longhorns simply hope to change the course of history.

don.markus@baltsun.com

Rose Bowl

No. 1 Southern California vs. No. 2 Texas, tonight, 8, chs. 2, 7 Line: USC by 7

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