USC, Oklahoma Will Play for All the Oranges


Published: Tuesday, January 4, 2005 at 1:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 4, 2005 at 1:12 p.m.

The anticipation about a possible showdown started before the season.

It heightened when the seemingly inevitable matchup was finalized last month.

And it neared a crescendo here during a week of hype and preparation.

Tuesday night, top-ranked USC (12-0) and No. 2 Oklahoma (12-0) finally will play in the Orange Bowl, this season's Bowl Championship Series title game.

The teams that started -- and held their positions -- atop the polls and later the BCS standings will meet at Pro Player Stadium in perhaps the most star-studded college football game in history.

"It could play out to be an instant classic," USC running back Reggie Bush said.

USC Coach Pete Carroll said Monday that neither he nor his players would be overcome by the hype.

"We've had a lot of big games," Carroll said. "I want them to feel that we're allowing all of the buildup to make it special, and we've practiced and prepared to play under the conditions that we'll be in.

"I'm not worried about being too pumped up, or the players. The more the better for this one."

USC hopes to duplicate its Orange Bowl success of two years ago when the Trojans signaled their return to national prominence by defeating Iowa, 38-17, in their first BCS game appearance.

BCS computers knocked USC out of the title game last season, but the Trojans won a share of their first national championship in 25 years with a 28-14 victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Now USC has a chance to complete its first perfect regular season since 1972 and become the first school to win consecutive national titles since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995. The Trojans take a 21-game winning streak into their first BCS title game.

"We had to kind of put on the smiley face last year and pretended we were satisfied," senior defensive tackle Shaun Cody said. "This year, we know we can be the champion."

To win the crystal football that is awarded to the BCS champion, USC must overcome the Sooners, who are playing in their third title game in five years under sixth-year Coach Bob Stoops.

Oklahoma won the 2000 championship by defeating Florida State in the 2001 Orange Bowl.

Last year, Oklahoma lost to Kansas State in the Big 12 Conference championship game but still finished first in the BCS standings. The Sooners then lost to Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl.

During the off-season, Oklahoma retooled its offense to take advantage of freshman Adrian Peterson's size, speed and powerful running style. The Sooners shadowed USC in the polls and survived scares from Oklahoma State and Texas A&M in consecutive weeks en route to the Big 12 title and another shot at the national championship.

"We haven't had to answer questions the entire week on why we're here," Stoops said.

Both teams feature dynamic offenses, stout defenses and game-breaking kick returners.

"We have the athletes and the speed and they have the athletes and the speed to match our guys," USC quarterback Matt Leinart said. "The game is probably about turnovers and who can keep the ball the longest."

Leinart won the Heisman Trophy last month in New York during a presentation that could have doubled as an Orange Bowl news conference.

Peterson, who has rushed for 1,843 yards, finished second in Heisman balloting. Sooner quarterback Jason White, the 2003 Heisman winner, finished third after passing for 33 touchdowns with six interceptions.

Bush, the Trojans' second-leading rusher and receiver -- and also the top kick returner -- finished fifth behind Utah quarterback Alex Smith, a former teammate at La Mesa (Calif.) Helix High School.

Despite the glut of offensive stars, the game could be decided in the trenches or on a special teams play.

Oklahoma's experienced offensive line is regarded as perhaps the best in the nation. Tackle Jammal Brown won the Outland Trophy, center Vince Carter is also an All-American and junior right guard Davin Joseph is another key part of a unit that has cleared the way for Peterson and allowed only seven sacks.

"I can't imagine a team making it through the season with fewer sacks than that," Carroll said. "They have great confidence in the scheme and the protection and (White) sits back there and guns you down, so hopefully we can disrupt him and make him move some."

Oklahoma plans to do the same to Leinart.

All-American defensive end Dan Cody said the Sooners must get USC's offense into third-and-long situations.

"But first things first -- we have to stop the run, we have to stop the quick passing game if we're ever going to get them there," said Cody, who has nine of the Sooners' 38 sacks and 15 tackles for losses.

If the game is as close as expected, USC could have an advantage in the kicking game. Senior Ryan Killeen is coming off a five-field-goal performance against UCLA. Oklahoma freshman Garrett Hartley has not attempted a field goal since taking over for Trey DiCarlo in the 11th game of the season.

Nail-biter or rout, Carroll said the Trojans would not be satisfied with merely participating in the BCS final.

"Once it's over, you ain't going to remember who was No. 2. ... It's down to competing time, and you've got to go for it.

"There's only first place right now," he said.

Breaking down the Orange Bowl

Southern California and Oklahoma both have a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, an All-American tailback and swift defenses that run similar schemes. A look at how the No. 1 Trojans and No. 2 Sooners will match up in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday night:

WHEN USC HAS THE BALL

Under coordinator Norm Chow, the Trojans' offense is versatile and efficient. They can be explosive or methodical when all the pieces are in place. That might not be the case in the Orange Bowl if TB LenDale White is hampered by a right ankle sprain. TB Reggie Bush is a big-play threat, but not a power runner like White. USC's offensive line is unlikely to manhandle a very good Oklahoma front. So with or without White, USC's best bet is to put the game in QB Matt Leinart's hands and use the short pass as a substitute for the running game. That should also help negate the Sooners' pass rush and put pressure on their questionable pass coverage.

"They want to get into three-step drops ... and try to get the ball off," Oklahoma defensive end Dan Cody said, "get good conservative passes, stay out of third-and-long and consistently move the ball down field. They're really good at it."

KEY MATCHUPS

WR Dwayne Jarrett vs. CB Marcus Walker - It's almost inevitable that the two star freshmen will square off at times. The 6-foot-5 Jarrett led USC with 50 catches for 734 yards and 12 TDs. The Sooners wanted to redshirt Walker, who didn't play until Game 9. He may already be OU's best cover man.

TEs Alex Holmes and Dominique Byrd vs. Ss Donte Nicholson and Brodney Pool - Pool and Nicholson are strong and active against the run. Holmes and Byrd are big targets and good athletes. It would be in the Trojans' best interest to get Nicholson and Pool in pass coverage.

WHEN OKLAHOMA HAS THE BALL

TB Adrian Peterson has become the focal point of the offense. The freshman is powerful enough to get tough yards and fast enough to break the long run. When defenses overcompensate to stop him, QB Jason White uses play action and a group of underrated receivers to take shots down the field. USC's is No. 2 in nation against the run, but cutback runners have had some success against them. The Sooners shouldn't be afraid to come out running and stick with it. It all starts with DTs Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson for USC. They get into the backfield and negative plays and turnovers follow. OU's veteran line, anchored by All-American Jammal Brown and center Vince Carter, allowed just seven sacks.

"They don't have to schematically double-team a lot of people," USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said. "They can win their one-on-one blocks."

KEY MATCHUPS

FB J.D. Runnels vs. LBs MLB Lofa Tatupu and Matt Grootegoed - Runnels has about 20 pounds on Tatupu and 30 on Grootegoed, a former safety. USC's backers rely on speed and their defensive tackles occupying blockers to get to ball carriers. They are USC's top tacklers and they'll have to go through Runnels to get Peterson.

WR Mark Clayton vs. CB Eric Wright - Clayton is the overlooked offensive star for the Sooners. He had 62 catches for 855 yards and is as shifty after the catch. Wright is a redshirt who moved into the starting lineup the last three games. How will he manage against a crafty receiver and veteran quarterback.

WHEN THE BALL IS KICKED

USC K Ryan Killeen was having a poor year until he went 5-for-5 on field goals against UCLA in the season finale. Oklahoma's kicking situation has been even worse. After being one of the best place-kickers in the country last season, Trey DiCarlo ended up losing his job to freshman Garrett Hartley, who hasn't attempted a field goal in college. USC P Tom Malone and OU P Blake Ferguson are good, but will they kick to dangerous returners. USC's Bush has two punt return touchdowns while OU's Antonio Perkins has eight career punt return TDs, an NCAA record.

WHEN THEY CELEBRATE

When Oklahoma scores, the Sooner Schooner takes a victory lap. The covered wagon is powered by two white ponies named Boomer and Sooner. After a Southern California score, a Trojan warrior in complete "Ben Hur" attire takes an enormous white horse named Traveler out for a gallop.

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