Published: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 9:53 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 10:05 a.m.
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - An 81-year-old football lifer who thought he'd seen it all stood outside the Rose Bowl, slowly running his hand through a full head of gray hair and staring into the night sky.
"Amazing," Darrell Royal said quietly. "There's just no other word for it. Amazing."
None of the kids who turned college football's grandest stage upside down Wednesday night had been born when Royal coached the last Texas national championship team in 1969.
But they knew enough about Longhorns football to know the old man was right.
"Texas 41, USC 38" will be remembered for all kinds of things:
Two unbeaten, unrivaled teams on dizzying winning streaks, finally arriving at a collision that seemed ordained from the opening game of the regular season.
Two Heisman Trophy winning stars on the Trojans' sideline _ boyish-looking, but lethal quarterback Matt Leinart and electrifying tailback Reggie Bush _ looking on as Vince Young, the Longhorns' one-man band, called the tune when it mattered most.
Southern California coach Pete Carroll, considered the coolest, most unflappable member of the fraternity, making desperate choices and worse gambles when the outcome hung in the balance.
"We gave our hearts, they gave their hearts and they came out on top," said Leinart, who passed up a chance to become the NFL's top pick last season for a shot at an unprecedented third straight national championship at Southern California. "It's disappointing. We missed some stuff in the first half, but that's the way these things go.
"No regrets," he added. "This is what I came back to school to do."
Young came back to the Rose Bowl a year after single-handedly destroying Michigan in a game that didn't matter nearly as much _ and if anything, he played better. The Trojans were in Florida that night, watching on television and preparing for a title match against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl that would end in a 55-19 rout and their coronation as two-time national champions and a dynasty in the making.
What they learned watching Young in person is that television hardly does justice to his blend of power and skill _ unless it's a video game and you're holding the controller.
"Vince brings out his bag of tricks all the time," said Texas cornerback Aaron Ross, who understands the mixed blessing of trying to handle Young in practice. "It's like you're playing with him on 'PlayStation.' You never know what's going to happen."
What happened, ultimately, is that Young ran for 200 yards and three touchdowns himself, completed 30 of 40 passes for another 267, and made all those Heisman voters who listed him second on their ballots _ beneath USC's Bush _ wonder if a recall election could be in the offing.
In the bargain, he also accomplished what storied programs like Notre Dame and upstarts like Fresno State could not _ finish off the Trojans once they had them down. He stopped Southern California's win streak at 34 in a row, moving Texas' unbeaten run of 20 straight to the top of college football's charts.
And to hear him tell it, the feat was no more difficult than sidestepping a tackle in the open field, or squeezing a spiral in between converging defensive backs.
"Do whatever it takes," Young said, "It's about heart, focus and poise."
Carroll knew about all of those things. And the longer he watched Young, the more he became convinced USC would have to abandon its comfort zone. He turned to trick plays, gambled recklessly on fourth-and-short situations, squandered timeouts _ did just about anything to keep the ball out of Young's hands.
None of it worked.
"The quarterback just ran all over the place," he said. "He's a fantastic player. He was the difference.
"And how classic was it," Carroll added, "that he ran it in on the last play?"
That was an 8-yard scamper on the Longhorns' final possession, a play that encompassed all of Young's remarkable qualities. He showed plenty of heart in the face of USC's onrushing defensive lineman, focus as he scanned the field from sideline to sideline in search of the best option and poise waiting for the right side to clear. Then he measured the distance to the goal line and took off with breathtaking swiftness. A few panicky Southern California defenders saw the picture developing, but realized it was too late to beat him to the corner.
On his way back to the Texas locker room, Longhorns coach Mack Brown pulled Bush off to the side. USC's all-everything tailback is assured of being the top pick in this summer's NFL, a once-in-a-generation talent.
"I thought it was a classy game," Brown told Bush. But on this night, there wasn't another player he wanted with the clock running down and the ball in his hands than his own No. 10.
"Nobody," Brown said at last, "could stop anybody."
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