- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. — The Sugar Bowl is now officially a sour bust.

Top-ranked Southern California staked its claim to the national title in decisive fashion yesterday, doubling up No.4 Michigan 28-14 in the 90th Rose Bowl.

Irrespective of the outcome of Sunday’s Sugar Bowl matchup between No.2 LSU and No.3 Oklahoma, the Trojans (12-1) are a virtual lock to maintain their perch atop the Associated Press poll and secure a piece of the program’s first national championship since 1978.

“We’re so proud to have had the chance to bring football glory back to the University of Southern California,” coach Pete Carroll said as the chant ‘We’re No.1’ rained down from the biased California crowd jammed into the legendary stadium. “We really do feel like we’re national champions. Somebody else might tell us we’re not, but I promise you we’re not going to believe them. We know what we’ve accomplished, and we feel very strongly about it.”

Perhaps some critics will look at the 14-point final margin against the second-tier Wolverines (10-3) and question USC’s right to the crown. But for the 93,849 fans present at the game, yesterday’s performance left little doubt.

The USC offense was sharp, piling up 410 yards on one of the stingiest defenses in the nation. Sophomore quarterback Matt Leinart, the star pupil of offensive guru Norm Chow, ventilated a Michigan secondary that was supposedly the strength of the defensive unit. En route to earning game MVP honors, Leinart connected on 23 of 34 passes for 327 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and added a trick-play touchdown reception for good measure.

All-American USC wideout Mike Williams, a 6-foot-5, 232-pound gazelle, did his usual damage underneath, catching eight passes for 88 yards. But senior Trojans target Keary Colbert upstaged the precocious sophomore yesterday, snaring six passes for 149 yards and two scores. Colbert’s second scoring catch was the jaw-dropper of the game.

With the smoke from the halftime celebration still hanging over the stadium, Colbert sprinted past Michigan cornerback Jeremy LeSueur on a seam route and then made a one-handed snare with his right arm with LeSueur clinging desperately to his left. Flags went down, and so did LeSueur. But not Colbert, who danced over the fallen Wolverine and glided into the end zone for a 47-yard score that put the Trojans ahead 21-0 with 13:45 remaining in the third quarter.

“That was a catch for the ages,” Carroll said. “I think that was the play that really gave us the separation to be in total control of the game. … So many guys made remarkable plays for us today.”

On USC’s next possession, Leinart and Williams combined on another of those remarkable moments. On a second-down play from the Michigan 15-yard line, Leinart slipped out of the backfield on an apparent reverse to Williams, flared to the corner of the end zone and gathered in a perfect scoring toss from the All-American receiver. The nifty strike from one lanky lefty to another gave the Trojans a 28-7 lead to close out the third quarter and basically concluded the competitive portion of the affair.

“We’ve been working on that play all month,” Leinart said. “Mike threw a perfect ball, and I knew I was going to catch it. That was beautiful.”

Less aesthetically pleasing (defensive coordinators excluded) but perhaps even more impressive was the play of the USC defense.

The Trojans’ front four surpassed even its ballyhooed billing, recording a staggering nine sacks of Michigan quarterback John Navarre. The Michigan senior, who refused to throw the ball away, spent the day running for his life and much of it on his rear. And USC All-American defensive end Kenechi Udeze spent almost as much time in the Michigan backfield as Chris Perry, sacking Navarre three times and harassing him countless others.

“Kenechi was just unstoppable out there today,” Carroll said. “I don’t think anybody in the country has played better football this year than that guy. He finished the season with 16-and-a-half sacks. That’s just outstanding. And our entire defensive line did a marvelous job putting pressure on a very good Michigan front. That line had given up 14 sacks all season, and we got nine today.”

Said Michigan’s Lloyd Carr of USC’s defensive onslaught: “My greatest fear going into this game was whether we would be able to protect the quarterback because that front four is so quick and so talented. We’re very disappointed with the way we played, but I think you have to give credit to USC for the havoc that those guys caused up front. I’m sure they’ll get a share of the national title, and they’re very deserving of it. We just couldn’t handle them up front.”

Unfortunately, no one ever will know whether Oklahoma or LSU could handle the Trojans. One more game pitting USC against the Sugar Bowl winner would solve the BCS mess and quell the ire of college football fans everywhere. But ABC and the NCAA refuse to give fans a playoff and resolution. Instead, the fans are left with a people’s champion (USC) and a championship game doomed to anticlimax.

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