Playing it safe is not Southern Cal's way

Published: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
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Texas players stop Southern California's LenDale White (21) from converting on a fourth-and-2 late in the fourth quarter Wednesday. Texas scored the winning touchdown on its subsequent offensive drive.

The Associated Press
PASADENA, Calif. - The choice was so clear. Those who second-guess Pete Carroll do not understand what had made Southern California unbeatable for three seasons.
Fourth-and-2 at the Texas 45. With 2:13 left in the Rose Bowl and USC up 38-33, the Trojans needed a first down to keep the ball away from Vince Young and keep the national championship trophy in Los Angeles for another year.
Of course Carroll went for it. Of course he turned to his celebrated offense, maybe the greatest in the history of the sport.
Going for it. That's become the Trojan way in five fantastic seasons under Carroll, it's how way they built a 34-game winning streak.
What else was there to do? So they went for it - without Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush on the field - and came up short. LenDale White got stopped inches shy of a first down, Texas took over and wound up with a 41-38 victory Wednesday night
"We would have won the game right there," Carroll said. "The decision, in my opinion, in our way of thinking, you're going for it all the time."
Want to criticize Carroll for not having Bush on the field there? OK, that's fair. Maybe if Bush splits out and goes in motion, the Longhorns' defense isn't quite so sure White is getting the ball.
Then again, Texas probably knew White was getting the ball on a fourth-and-1 in the third quarter and couldn't stop that play. Or most of his other 20 carries that were good for 124 yards.
"If I was Pete Carroll, I would have run the same play in the same situation," Texas coach Mack Brown said Thursday after collecting the school's first Associated Press championship trophy since 1969.
"I would have gone for the fourth-and-2 because we had not stopped LenDale White all night, we had not stopped the power play," he said.
You hear college football players say it constantly: "If we just play our game and execute, we can't be beat."
Usually, it's just talk. Not for USC. The Trojans go about their business and it's up to the other team to figure out a way to stop them.
That's how Carroll has sold the program and why the big-time recruits flock to him.
USC doesn't play it safe. It plays to win. The Trojans go for it because the other guys aren't as good as they are.
In Texas, USC finally met its match. In Young, the Trojans faced an opponent that could glare back and say, "Oh yeah? Stop this."
The Trojans were all about offense this season. A spectacular, pile-up-the-points unit with Heisman Trophy winners Matt Leinart and Bush leading a slew of future NFL players.
USC's defense had been spotty even before Young blew through them in the Rose Bowl. Carroll knew it was far riskier to ask his defenders to stop Young than to ask his offense to gain 2 yards in one play.
"It's real simple," Carroll said, patiently answering the fourth-and-2 question for the third time at the postgame news conference. "The series before they had great success moving down the field. If they get the ball, I don't know what yard line it was, but it's the 40 or so, whether they get it there ... or kick it 20 yards farther, it's not going to make a big difference."
White is among USC's future pros. The junior tailback seems almost as likely as Bush to pass on his senior season and enter the draft.
The 225-pound White was USC's best back in the Rose Bowl. His third touchdown of the game was a 12-yard burst through the line on a fourth-and-1 in the third quarter.
So of course Carroll went to his bull rusher on the most important fourth-and-short of the season. USC came out on that pivotal fourth-and-2 with White set deep behind a fullback, two tight ends and one wide receiver.
But this time Texas' interior line held firm, All-America safety Michael Huff filled what little hole there was and White came up about 6 inches short.
Young took over at the 44, performed his magic and capped a 467-yard game with a touchdown scramble with 19 seconds left.
The Trojans didn't give away the national title. They went for it and Texas took it away.

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