Sat, Jan 07, 2006 - Page 19 News List

USC Trojan express comes to a sudden halt after big game

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

Matt Leinart's last meal as a Southern California Trojan came in a plastic container.

In a nearly empty locker room on Wednesday night, Leinart picked at a turkey sandwich, swigged a blue Gatorade and devoured a chocolate chip cookie. Between bites, Leinart hugged team managers and received consoling pats on the back from his teammates.

"I don't have any regrets," Leinart said.

His final meal marked the end of a remarkable career that ended with a transcendent performance by Texas quarterback Vince Young and an ill-fated fourth-down play that left the Trojans about five inches short of cementing one of college football's dynasties.

Leinart did all he could to lead the Trojans to their third consecutive national title, completing 15 of his first 16 second-half passes. But the aggressiveness, gusto and verve that were prevalent in the Trojans' 34-game winning streak undid them in a 41-38 Rose Bowl loss.

The critical play came with USC leading, 38-33, with a little more than two minutes remaining. Facing a fourth-and-2 on the Texas 45, the Trojans ran "27 Power," the same play on which LenDale White had scored twice. It is run over left guard behind the Trojans' top lineman, Taitusi Lutui. That was the same gap through which Leinart plunged into the end zone on USC's final play in a victory against Notre Dame.

"He's been a great short-yardage guy for three solid years," Trojans coach Pete Carroll said. "We ran it to the side and the best way. Everything was exactly what we wanted."

Except the result. A Texas linebacker crashed the gap. Safety Michael Huff came in and completed the tackle as White gasped for extra yardage. White, who finished with 124 yards rushing and three touchdowns, fell a few inches short, setting the stage for Young's winning drive.

"I tried to make one more surge forward," White said wistfully. "It just didn't work."

Texas coach Mack Brown said Thursday morning that he would have made the same decision and run the same play.

"We had not stopped LenDale White all night," Brown said. "We had not stopped the power play."

That aggressive play-calling popped up throughout the game and the USC winning streak. Carroll eschewed a chip-shot field goal on fourth-and-1 in the first quarter and called a Leinart sneak. Inexplicably, the Trojans lined up with an empty backfield, and Leinart was stopped for no gain.

Against Notre Dame, Carroll elected to go for the victory at the 1 in the waning seconds instead of kicking a field goal to force overtime. That resulted in the Bush Push of Leinart into the end zone, perhaps the most heart-pounding victory in the 34-game streak.

"That's just Coach Carroll's philosophy," Trojans safety Scott Ware said. "We always want to be the ones that decide the game."

That philosophy applies to the officiating. Carroll has said he dislikes officials in the replay booth deciding a game. Heading into the Notre Dame game, Carroll elected not to have instant replay. The decision helped the Trojans when Leinart fumbled out of bounds on the play preceding Reggie Bush's push. Perhaps with replay, the spot would have been farther back than the 1.

But in the Rose Bowl, replay -- or its absence -- burned USC at least twice. Officials had ruled that a Leinart pass to the end zone was not an interception, saying that Texas' Michael Griffin did not catch the ball inbounds. Officials reversed the call after reviewing the replay.

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