I was fortunate ebough to be in attendance of the magical Rose Bowl, an experience I'll remember `til the day I die. I've offered some preliminary thoughts on the game, but what follows is my complete diary of the experience. Most of it is game analysis, but I'll try to recount the setting some, too.
The parking "lot" was actually a golf course adjacent to the Rose Bowl, a massive expanse of lush green grass still damp from the previous days' rain, ready to be ruined by the 90,000+ fans streaming in for the game. I really didn't know what to expect from it all, but a few things stuck out immediately.
- It was impressively orderly and manageable. You'd expect an event like this to have some turmoil, but the whole thing was managed beautifully. There was ample parking, directions were clear, and there was plenty of support staff to direct the traffic. It was, after all, the 92nd Rose Bowl. They handled it very professionally.
- USC fans don't tailgate. After our roughly one and a half mile walk from our car to "the other Andrew's" tailgate (which was ideally located just 250 yards from the stadium), I wondered if the stadium might be 90% burnt orange. Almost every single fan in the parking lot was a Texas fan. Almost every tailgate was a Texas tailgate. I am not exaggerating when I say that we wondered if USC fans had sold all their tickets to Longhorn fans. They simply weren't there. It was astounding.
Just a quick shout out to Andrew, his wife Erinn, Dr. and Mrs. Windler, and Wells, for putting together a fantastic tailgate. The food was outstanding, the beer was plentiful, and the company first rate. It was great to see old friends, the Person family, and all the random UT fans that stopped by to say hello and wish the Horns well in the game. After the game, several USC radio announcers said that the UT fans were among the most gracious they'd ever encountered. I was proud to be a member of such a classy and loyal fan base. Burnt Orange Nation is a wonderful family indeed.
I encourage everyone to take a trip to the Rose Bowl sometime. The stadium, despite being enormous enough to seat 94,000 fans, doesn't overwhelm you with its size. It feels personal and I can honestly say that there are no bad seats in the house. The mountains in the backdrop just add to the beauty. Easily the best setting for a college football game that I've ever been to.
Once inside, we found our seats in the Longhorn end zone, about 50 yards to the left of the band, seven rows up from the field. We were close enough to the players to see anything and everything. The huge burnt orange to crimson and gold ratio dipped dramatically in the stadium itself. The fans were divided roughly equally, with most USC fans being on one side and UT fans on the other. If anything, there was maybe a 60-40 advantage for Texas in terms of number of fans, but it was roughly equal. Considering how many people bought tickets on eBay and other scalping sites, I was astounded that everyone wound up on their own team's side. Just another facet of the perfect set up.
When you play a team like USC, you know you can't have an off day. If you bring your B game, USC will beat you. Period. The first series on defense told me that we were going to have a competitive game. The first good sign came as Reggie Bush took the ball from his own end zone and tried to make a big return. The coverage was outstanding and USC had to start from their own 12. It was the first of several mistakes Bush made on the evening, as he should have knelt the ball for a touchback.
After Tarrell Brown took down Reggie Bush for a 2 yard loss on first down, USC managed only 5 yards on two Leinart pass attempts, forcing a punt. I turned to Erin and told her that we were in business. I thought it was vital that our defense make a stand on the first series, and they did.
Then, of course, we got our first bad omen. Aaron Ross pulled a Reggie Bush and tried to do too much. In the irony or all ironies, it was Scott "the Bull" Ware who came in and made the strip, forcing the first USC turnover and giving them the early momentum.
I cannot tell you how devastating that turnover was. We bailed out their lackluster first drive and put their offense back on the field. Mentally, USC must have thought to themselves that they could do to us what they did to everyone else. When you play a champion like USC, you have to deflate their confidence. You have to make them wonder if this new team they are facing is going to treat them differently. When they are able to do the things that they always do to kill opponents, it puts them back into their championship mode. The Aaron Ross fumble was just devastating.
Yeah. That's what you worry about. Suddenly they have the early lead, they have their swagger back, and we now have to outscore these guys for the remainder of the game. It was no secret how USC won 34 straight games. Lots of offense that feasted on getting lots of extra posessions on turnovers. Aaron Ross played right into their hands. This is how Oklahoma got pounded a year ago. Turnovers giving the ball to a sick offense. Bad, bad idea.
Two possessions, two turnovers. I don't care that this was on downs; it was the wrong decision and the equivalent of a fumble or interception. It's tempting to go for it on 4th and 2 when you have an offense as good as Texas's is, but this early in the game, it was a mistake. We gave them a short field and even MORE momentum. The dreaded "bad start" was taking shape early, and I will freely admit that I was terrified. Were we going to play USC like every other dumbass deer-in-the-headlights team?
And yes, the Trojan that stuffed the run was Scott Ware. Are you FREAKING kidding me? An early nightmare.
After USC got the ball down to the Texas' 17 yard line, the Trojans were faced with a 4th and 1. Carroll didn't get a measurement to figure out how much yardage the Trojans needed and they tried a Leinart QB sneak. The Texas defense made a huge stand and got the ball back on downs.
Probably one of the three or four most important plays of the game. If USC gets a first down, they probably score 7. At least 3. The defense gets demoralized. Maybe Texas continues to press too much. All kinds of badness.
Instead, the Horns get a huge momentum lift, and everyone on the Texas side starts to breathe, finally. It was a defining moment in the game. We had just been bailed out of a terrible start to the game, and the coaches finally got it: hey, this is a four quarter football game, just like any other. Yes, there's more at stake, but no, you can't win it all right away. Let's calm down here and play our game.
By the way, it was Drew Kelson that helped to stuff Matt Leinart. If I may toot my own horn a moment here, in my Rose Bowl preview I said that Drew Kelson would play a critical role in this game. He was probably the defensive MVP, if you ask me. He probably would have been had he held on to that interception in the second half. He had a terrific, terrific game.
The infamous mystery pitch by Bush has been covered extensively by now, so I won't go too much into it. Its significance, though, cannot be understated. I'm not sure if it came across on TV, but live on the field, you could just see, on every play, how badly Bush wanted to break a big one. When he finally did, even that wasn't enough, and he tried the insane pitch play. Bush's lust for the backbreaking dagger in Texas' heart hurt him, and the Trojans, all night.
Bush was visibly frustrated by the speed on the Texas defense, and it killed him. Gene Chizik's plan to limit Bush's big plays, while letting the Trojans have their yards underneath, was brilliant. Were we shutting down the Trojans? No. Were they happy to be nitpicking their way down the field, though? Um, no. I think they were baffled by their inability to make the big play. A brilliant gameplan by Chizik. He made Bush his own worst enemy.
I want to say a little bit more about how important all this was. We won, so it's easy to forget, but USC scored four straight touchdowns in the second half. Make no mistake about it: At halftime, the USC coaches told their offense that they weren't going to make huge plays on this Texas defense and they needed to take what they could get. Leinart then went in to masterful technician mode and killed us. There's just not much you can do to stop a passing attack that efficient.
But what's important is that USC missed out on big opporunities in the first half because they hadn't realized that yet. This is why Chizik's gameplan was so important. His commitment to stop that big play frustrated the Trojans into uncharacteristic mistakes, including Carroll's decision to go for it on 4th down. They could have had a much better first half than they did, and you have to credit Chizik and the Texas defense for disrupting their rhythm. It was an understated, but truly vital, key to our victory.
The Vince-to-Selvin option touchdown was bittersweet. It was beautiful in that the drive marked the first sign that our offense was really on track, but the missed extra point was so painful. It was another one of those "Damnit you can't do this against USC" moments, and could have been a lethal mistake if Superman hadn't done his thing in the 4th quarter. The University of Texas kicking woes need to be addressed. I can't handle much more of this. You just don't want to win in spite of such easily preventable mistakes. Mack would be wise to revisit his "no scholarships for new kickers" policy.
The score could have been so different. Had Ross not screwed up the punt return early on, Texas might have gotten in to their rhythm earlier. Had USC not been so eager to bury Texas right away, they could have had 21 first half points. All in all, the first half was about even, but the most important thing that happened was that USC wasn't able to pull off any of their signature big plays. The stage was set for the amazing second half.
Okay, I never said he wasn't good, but I definitely sold him short. Distracted by the shiny, pretty thing that was Reggie Bush, I thought Leinart had lost his edge. I thought he was a bit overrated and perhaps made to look better than he is by his supporting cast. To the contrary, we found out in the second half that Leinart is the grease on the wheels.
I don't like the guy at all (his post-game comments epitomized why I dislike him), but I was very, very, very impressed by him in the second half of the Rose Bowl. He made all the right reads, his passes were incredibly accurate, and he took exactly what was given to him. You couldn't ask for a better passing half from a quarterback.
USC ran off four straight touchdowns using Leinart's precision and Lendale White's deceptively quick, but powerful, runs. We simply had no way to stop them, and in reality, you can't really stop them. This gets us back to the point I've been hammering home since the game: Gene Chizik did the only rational thing you can do against a team like USC. He took away the home run and made them earn it. Earn it they did, but that's all you can do.
As soon as we made the third down stop, I turned to Erin and said, "They're going to go for it." I had absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Carroll would go for it, and given the opportunity, I'd go for it as well. Here's the thing: that is the right time to put the dagger in your opponent's heart. USC made lots of mistakes trying to bury Texas in the first half, but there's no doubt that trying to end the game right then and there in the 4th quarter was the right play. I don't know that it was the most imaginative play call on 4th down, but it was the right call to go for it. The Texas defenders just made the big play. Michael Huff stepped up and stuffed Lendale White, and the rest is history.
After Matt Leinart's last pass sailed incomplete, all of the burnt orange faitful look up frantically for the clock. When we realized the game was over, it was a roar of elation like I've never experienced, and probably never will again. Jumping up and down, screaming, high fiving any hand you could reach, hugging, yelling, thanking the football gods, wondering if it was all real, even tears. The moment was overwhelming and for a glorious minute or two, it was pure burnt orange pandemonium as 50,000 Longhorn fans celebrated together. It was the kind of moment that makes me want every championship team to win at home, or on a neutral field where thousands of their fans can be together. I'll never ever root for a team to win a championship on the road again.
This is already long enough, so I won't go on much longer here. I have to rank this as the greatest moment in my sports life by a large margin, as I'm sure it was for many, if not all, of you. I'm thankful that I was able to be with my girlfriend, thankful to be amongst some of my best friends in the world, thankful to be a fan of the greatest university in the world, thankful that Mack Brown is my coach, and thankful that Vince Young was a Texas Longhorn. Whether he turns pro or not, he has finally done what I thought no one would ever do: he has surpassed TJ Ford as my favorite UT athlete of all time.
Thank you, Vince Young.
And thank you, Burnt Orange Nation for coming along for this amazing ride. This is just the beginning here at the blog, and I hope everyone will stay as enthusiastic and involved as they have been. You guys make this blog what it is, and we're going to keep growing and getting better. Lots of Longhorn fans were introduced to BON at the Rose Bowl, so I think we'll keep getting bigger and better. Keep being the best fans in the world.