As part of the Throwback Thursday: CFB Classics series, ESPN is airing the 2006 Rose Bowl between the Texas Longhorns and the USC Trojans on Thursday evening at 7 p.m. Central.
You’re welcome to join me in re-watching it tonight. The comments for this post can serve as an Open Thread for the broadcast, and the folks at Banner Society will be hosting a live chat in their Slack Channel, which will open up shortly before 7 p.m Central.
Considered one of the greatest college football games of all time, it’s one of those iconic contests that remains burned into the memory as vividly as if it happened yesterday — I remember exactly where I was during the game, as I’m sure every other Texas fan does as well.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t there. I’ll always rank not trying harder to get tickets to the game as one of my greatest sports regrets. Not only did I fail to make sure that I was in the Rose Bowl that evening, I also passed up on the second-best option of returning to Austin to watch the game with my roommates and my friends.
I had to live through their excitement vicariously when my roommates told me the story of how everyone’s drinks went into the air when Vince Young crossed the goal line on 4th and 5 and how all the furniture ended up overturned. How everyone ended up over on The Drag celebrating.
I was back home in Lafayette, Indiana watching the game at a Buffalo Wild Wings. One of my friends came for the start of the game and my brother and some other friends came towards the end, but mostly I watched it alone and I certainly watched it without any other Texas fans present.
I grew up watching the Chicago Bulls win six championships, so I wasn’t a stranger to the feeling of seeing one of my teams compete for a title, but I’ve never felt as much nervous anticipation for a game as I did that day. I probably never will again. My stomach was in knots all day and by the time the game finally kicked off, I was an emotional mess.
During those days, I had a reputation for being, um, rather intense during games. More so than any of my friends, certainly. So in the midst of the rollercoaster of emotions experienced during that game, punctuated by calls of “Go Vincent! Go Vincent! Go Vincent!” and pounding my chest on big plays by Texas, there were more than a couple people in that restaurant visibly making fun of me and my antics.
I didn’t care.
And they certainly weren’t making fun of me by the end of the game, either — I think by that point they were all jealous that I’d been able to watch my team win one of the greatest sporting events they’d ever seen. After all, these were mostly Boilermakers fans, Cubs fans, Colts fans. The vast majority had probably never cheered any of their teams to a title, much less in a game like that.
The game pitted the best two teams in the country and two of the best teams in college football history. Both were loaded with future NFL talent and came in on long winning streaks. The Trojans had won back-to-back national titles on the strength of a 34-game winning streak. The Longhorns had won 19 games in a row, including the previous year’s Rose Bowl against Michigan in another instant classic.
There were numerous Texas stars, from Young to Jamaal Charles to Limas Sweed, who had caught the game-winning pass against Ohio State to allow Texas the chance to appear in the Rose Bowl. Tight end David Thomas served as Young’s security blanket. The offensive line featured four future NFL players. On defense, the secondary was extraordinary, led by Michael Huff and Michael Griffin and featuring three other players who played in the NFL.
USC was just as star-studded. With an electric performance against Fresno State late in the season, Reggie Bush won the Heisman Trophy over Young, who stumbled in a closer-than-expected win against a mediocre but feisty Texas A&M team. Bush’s backfield mate, LenDale White, afforded the Trojans a true Thunder and Lightning combination that overwhelmed most defenses. Quarterback Matt Leinart had won the Heisman Trophy the year before and had plenty of weapons at his disposal — four wide receivers on that team went on to play in the NFL, led by Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. Sixteen players went on to play at the next level.
Months later, more than 20 players from the game were selected in the NFL Draft.
The lead up to the game heavily factors into its narrative, too — ESPN spent much of the prior month discussing whether USC was the greatest college football team in history, adding a little bit of extra edge to a Texas team that felt like it was being overlooked. Because it was being overlooked.
Assuming that the Longhorns didn’t have a chance in the game wasn’t the only significant snub, either.
Young had one of the best seasons ever for a player who didn’t win the Heisman. He was more consistent as a passer, increasing his completion percentage into the mid-60s and hitting big plays to receivers like Limas Sweed and Billy Pittman. On the ground, he simply moved at a different speed than everyone else on the field, gliding past defenders with his long strides or running through them at 6’5 and more 230 pounds. In 2005, Young set the single-season Texas record with 4,086 yards of total offense — it was one of the best individual seasons for any player in school history.
In the Rose Bowl, Young was at his best, throwing for 267 yards and rushing for 200 yards and three touchdowns, including his eight-yard touchdown run on 4th and 5 with 19 seconds remaining to take the lead after a remarkable comeback. On the biggest stage, Young was simply transcendent — on a field full of stars, he shined the brightest.
That comeback wouldn’t have been possible without one of the most notorious gaffes in college football history. Before Pete Carroll became known for snatching defeat from the hands of victory in the Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks, he opted to keep Bush on the sideline for the most important play of his career — 4th and 2 with 2:13 remaining and the Trojans clinging to a five-point lead. Predictably, the ball went to White and those future NFL players in the Texas secondary came charging downhill to stop the bruising USC running back just short of the first-down marker.
Then Young took advantage, just like everyone in the stadium and watching around the country knew that he would.
If Young was the expected hero, the most unexpected contributions on the final drive came from little-used senior wide receiver Brian Carter. Entering the 2005 season, Carter only had three catches for 47 yards in his career. Against USC, Carter surpassed that production with three catches for 52 yards, including two catches on the final drive, the second of which went for 17 yards and moved Texas inside the red zone.
Of course, there was more than a little bit of luck involved for the Longhorns in the game — a dropped interception by USC, Young’s lateral to Selvin Young on a touchdown run when Young’s knee was clearly down before the pitch, Young’s fumble in the fourth quarter recovered by his offensive lineman, Kasey Studdard, and most particularly Bush’s decision to try to match Young’s lateral with one of his own that resulted in a Texas recovery.
To beat a team like the Trojans, though, there’s always going to be a little bit of luck involved, so it’s more fun to remember other moments from the game, like Griffin’s interception in the front corner of the end zone or Drew Kelson running stride for stride with Bush and nearly intercepting the pass from Leinart. Or the steady contributions of Thomas, who led the team with 10 catches for 88 yards.
There may not be any live sports on in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but watching the 2006 Rose Bowl together on Thursday evening seems like the next best thing. We hope you’ll join us and let us know in the comments where you were during the game and your favorite memories from it.