Sports Nut

Don’t Mess With Texas

How Vince Young and the Longhorns won it all.

Battle of the charismatic QBs: Young wins
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Battle of the charismatic QBs: Young wins

You won’t hear much invective hurled at the BCS after last night’s epic 41-38 Texas win over USC. OK, you’ll hear a small amount of invective from me: The first half was a powerful argument for a playoff system. The sloppy play, missed tackles, and carelessness with the ball were ugly evidence of the monthlong layoff. At least a playoff would keep the teams in fighting trim through December. Imagine how fantastic the contest would have been without so much ragged play.

Case in point: Reggie Bush, last seen winning the Heisman Trophy after an autumn that earned comparisons to Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders. Bush may have had a little too much time to reflect on the hosannas thrown his way. According to sideline reporter Todd Harris, someone on Team Bush decided the national championship game would be the ideal coming out party for a new shoe—something called the “SuperBad.” That turned out to be an apt description for his harebrained attempted lateral in the second quarter. The resulting turnover allowed the ‘Horns to get off the mat after an early deficit. At halftime, ABC showed Bush succeeding on a similar heave while at Helix High. Reggie, you’re not in the bush leagues anymore.

Fast forward to the fourth quarter, two minutes left, and USC up 38-33 on the Texas 45-yard line. With SC needing to convert a fourth-and-two to put the game in the refrigerator, Bush watched from the sidelines. It wasn’t a mistake to use the punishing LenDale White, but the Trojans should have at least used Bush as a decoy. SC had much of its success spreading the field and then busting White through the middle; on this play, they were in a power-bunch set that allowed Texas to clog the interior.

Ironically, it was a fourth-down conversion in the din of Notre Dame Stadium back in October that propelled talk of USC as the Greatest Team Ever. USC coach Pete Carroll had gambled on fourth-and-one in the third quarter, and White busted in for an easy TD. USC went back to the well to put the game away—a decision I agree with—but came up inches short thanks to a big stick by Texas’ Aaron Harris. It was a cruel finish for the USC offense considering that White and the mammoth Trojan O-line were otherwise unstoppable.

USC will be expected to fall off without quarterback Matt Leinart and the presumably NFL-bound Bush next season. But since that incredible offensive line, which busted huge gashes in the Texas defense and kept Leinart safe and cozy all night, loses only one starter (All-American Taitusi Lutui), count on further offensive dominance from the Trojans. Lutui, along with mates Sam Baker, Winston Justice, Fred Matua, and Ryan Kalil, were Southern Cal’s true MVPs on Wednesday night.

Their counterparts in burnt orange weren’t quite as awesome, but Vince Young papered over any blocking mistakes with a performance that’s been immediately and rightly hailed as one of the greatest ever: 200 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, 267 yards through the air. Young is a freakish Frankenstein of a quarterback who combines the best attributes of Michael Vick, John Elway, and long-striding former University of Arkansas QB Matt Jones. He’s slippery, with a rocket arm (and vastly underrated accuracy) and a loping gait that doesn’t seem particularly fast until he beats defenders to the edge time and again.

Young’s performance was so breathtaking, so charismatic, that he turned the endgame into a fait accompli. Several Longhorns had big games—tight end David Thomas, safety Michael Huff, offensive tackle Jonathan Scott—but it was Young who made the glamorous Trojans look helpless. The game looked done when SC scored with 6:42 left to go up 12 points. Only something extraordinary would prevent another Trojan title—he wore No. 10 in white.

Young is now 30-2 as a starter—comparable to the 37-2 mark put up by golden boy Leinart. With two national titles, the Heisman, the unforgettable Notre Dame game, and a senior season spent as the biggest athlete/celebrity in Los Angeles, Leinart was a half-yard from arguably the greatest college career of all time. After a mediocre first half, Curly Matt could do no wrong in the second stanza, right up until a critical underthrow of an open fullback two plays before the fourth-down stop of White. A slipshod final play, where a crisp one might have allowed for a tying field goal try, left Leinart looking dazed and diminished, like a boxing champ who got KO’d in the last round. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy. Then I remembered his sickeningly charmed life and snapped out of it.

With both teams playing such inspired ball, only the refs came out looking bad. This was no lone gunman altering history, as with the phantom pass interference call in 2003’s Miami-Ohio State championship game. This was a poor crew that, even more so than the players, showed signs of the long layoff. Forget the blown call on Young’s lateral, when it was obvious to the naked eye that his knee was down before the pitch. More disturbing were the zebra-in-the-headlights looks after every close call—so emasculated by replay, so ill-prepared for the unparalleled speed on the field, the doddering men in black-and-white simply opted out of making immediate decisions. A game of this magnitude demanded better.

Ditto for Keith Jackson. Painful as it is to say, because I love Keith and grew up with “Whoa, Nellie!” and “Big Uglies,” ABC can’t afford to use Jackson in the season’s alpha game. Jackson, who calls mostly West Coast games since his unretirement a few years ago, still has that golden voice, but otherwise he’s lost a step. On the knee-down lateral play, Jackson admitted he couldn’t see clearly as he was watching through binoculars. Maybe watching through specs was useful for picking out trap blocks in the Woody Hayes era, but now the game is just too fast to accommodate viewing on zoom.

ABC’s telecast was otherwise solid, perversely benefiting from a surfeit of celebrities, thus avoiding the Laura Quinn overkill that marred the Fiesta Bowl. Dan Fouts has very, very quietly become one of the game’s top analysts. He noted USC’s lack of a pass rush very early on, and, best of all, he clammed up as the action heated. That’s a feat many “Lemme tell ya about whatta football player he is!” types cannot manage.

After Wednesday’s marvelous title game, my only worry is that the NFL playoffs will be a damp squib by comparison. At least the Yellow Rose Bowl put the suspense back in the NFL draft. Assuming he turns pro, Young’s hometown Houston Texans will be heavily pressured to select the local hero. Reggie Bush might be SuperBad, but Young just won the Super Bowl of college sports.