- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

LOS ANGELES — When No. 2 Texas takes the field in tomorrow night’s Rose Bowl against top-ranked Southern California and perhaps the greatest offense the college game has ever seen, the Longhorns’ upset hopes will be pinned primarily on their secondary.

There’s a reason the Trojans (12-0) are 7-point favorites to win their 35th consecutive game and third straight national title: Looking at the matchups on paper, USC would seem to rate an advantage or a push at virtually every position. The lone glaring exception comes in the secondary, where Texas (12-0) counters USC’s pedestrian bunch with perhaps the best set of defensive backs in the nation.

“Top to bottom, this is the best defense we will have faced since I’ve been here,” USC quarterback Matt Leinart said yesterday — high praise coming from a player who has compiled a 37-1 record as a starter and collected a Heisman Trophy and consecutive title-game MVP awards. “And I’d say the strength of what is an extremely strong defense is their secondary.”

Said USC coach Pete Carroll of the Texas defensive backfield: “I look back there, and all I see is NFL players. They’re a very confident, very aggressive, fast, big group that is talented enough to stay very basic. They really jump out at you on film because they don’t need to junk it up and play any help back there. They’ve just locked up in man and smothered everybody they’ve played.”

In fact, Texas’ trio of cornerbacks (Cedric Griffin, Tarell Brown and Aaron Ross) has been so effective blanketing opposing receivers in press one-on-one coverage that safeties Michael Huff and Michael Griffin have evolved into contact-craving missiles free to linger around the line of scrimmage like fourth and fifth linebackers. So it’s little surprise that the Michaels lead the team in tackles. Griffin racked up a Longhorns-leading 116, while Huff collected 97 (nine for losses) en route to earning the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.

“If there’s a better set of DBs in the nation, I haven’t seen them,” said Griffin, the junior strong safety who doubles as the group’s Sultan of Smack. “Most teams are lucky to have one or two standouts in the secondary. We have five, and that’s a major headache — literally and figuratively.”

The quintet has 131 career starts and helped the Longhorns rank fifth in the nation against the pass (155.9 yards) this season. Only Texas Tech, which has the nation’s top passing attack, managed to crack the 200-yard barrier against the Longhorns, throwing for 369 yards in a 52-17 loss. No other nickel group came close to matching the 404 tackles amassed by the ‘Horns five headhunters.

A quick comparison between those numbers and the forgettable stats posted by their USC counterparts brings up the possibility the Trojans’ aura of invincibility has been a touch overplayed.

Aside from All-American junior safety Darnell Bing, a human hammer who asked for, received and has since earned Mike Garrett’s retired No.20 jersey, the Trojans’ secondary is relatively inexperienced, undecorated and underwhelming. Southern Cal ranked a dismal 75th in the nation against the pass (227.3 yards), allowing six to top the 250-yard barrier while totaling just 205 tackles.

“They’ve given up an awful lot of yardage back there, so that’s definitely something we’ll look to take advantage of,” Texas receiver Limas Sweed said.

On the flip side, the Texas corners have been so good in man coverage that Southern Cal’s wideout combination of super soph Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith will be able to get free and force an adjustment.

“I hope they play us man,” said Jarrett, a 6-foot-5 burner who caught 81 balls for 1,153 yards and 15 touchdowns en route to All-American honors. “When you’ve got as many weapons as we have, that’s playing with fire.”

That matchup between Jarrett and Smith and the Texas corners could be the key to the game. If Texas is able to bring the two Michaels up and put nine defenders in the box, USC’s top-ranked rushing attack is likely to sputter, even with the thunder-and-lightning combination of 1,000-yard pounder LenDale White and Heisman terror Reggie Bush in the backfield behind Leinart.

USC has countered such measures all season by using Bush in different positions and motion formations. But Huff put his hand up for the Bush slot assignment before coach Mack Brown finished toweling off from his Gatorade bath at the Big 12 title game.

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior from Irving, Texas, was given similar duty in the team’s toughest game of the season, holding Ohio State gamebreaker Ted Ginn to two catches for 9 yards in the Longhorns’ 25-22 victory in Columbus.

Huff is well aware that Bush, a short-list suitor for the most dangerous weapon in the history of the college game, pushes the chore to a daunting new level. But exhibiting the same temerity that has defined the entire Texas team’s pregame mentality, Huff is eager for his head-on with history.

“You can’t put a linebacker on Reggie Bush — it’s suicide,” he said. “And I’ve said all along that I want that challenge. I want Reggie Bush, not because I disrespect him but precisely because I respect him so much as a player. I want to cover a Heisman Trophy winner. Because before you can say you’re the best, you have to cover the best. We’ve all waited our entire lives for this kind of challenge and this kind of stage, and now it’s on.”

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