It’s rare in college football for a team to start the season #1 and finish it there. It’s even rarer for the two teams ranked 1-2 in the preseason to hold serve all the way and then play a classic national championship game to end the year. That’s what happened in a 2005 college football season that ended with an epic USC-Texas Rose Bowl battle.
The USC Trojans were a team ready to take their place in history. They’d won a share of the national title in 2003, won it outright in 2004 and were ranked #1 coming into the 2005 season. They had ’04 Heisman winner Matt Leinhart at quarterback and running back Reggie Bush would go on to claim the award in 2005.
The Trojans, coached by Pete Carroll, didn’t have a great defense, but it was good enough to allow the offense to keep them undefeated. USC faced only three notable challenges en route to an undefeated season. They fell behind Arizona State 21-3 before rallying to win 38-28 in the early part of the season, and it required a herculean effort by Bush—over 500 yards total offense—to get past Fresno State 50-42 in down the stretch.
It was an October trip to Notre Dame in the middle that was the most fraught with controversy and drama. USC trailed 31-28 when Leinhart completed a 61-yard-pass to Dwayne Jarrett deep in his own end, and on fourth down, to keep the Trojans alive. They got to the one-yard line with seven seconds left.
Eschewing a field goal, Carroll called a quarterback sneak. Leinhart was stopped, but “the Bush Push”, an illegal push from his running back, put Leinhart in the end zone and USC won 34-31.
The Texas Longhorns opened the season #2, and in their second game, played college football’s best, and most consequential regular season game. They visited Ohio State, ranked #4. The Longhorns and Buckeyes went back and forth, before Longhorn quarterback Vince Young threw a late touchdown pass to Limas Sweed and got his team out of Columbus with a 25-22 win.
The Longhorns had been tormented by rival Oklahoma in recent seasons, but it was UT who did the tormenting this time around. They routed OU 45-12. Texas was only tested twice the rest of the way. They fell behind Oklahoma State 28-9 in the first half, before a three-touchdown binge in the third quarter turned the tide and they won 47-28. The season finale against Texas A&M was a sloppy affair, where Texas needed a late score to finally get some distance in a 40-29 win.
Texas then sealed the deal by dropping 70 points on Colorado in the Big 12 Championship Game and getting their crack at USC.
The national championship game was played in the Rose Bowl, close to a home game for USC, and the Trojans were a seven-point favorite. They had a 34-game winning streak and were already being compared to the best college football teams of all time. It would prove to be a case of analysts ignoring USC’s defensive deficiencies and not distinguishing between the amazing three-year run collectively, and the flaws of the 2005 team individually.
Texas led 16-10 at the half, with the first half’s most memorable play being Bush getting in the clear and when being tackled deep in Longhorn territory, trying a foolish blind lateral over his head, which the ‘Horns recovered.
USC’s offense looked in synch coming out of intermission and they built up a 38-26 lead. With 6:42 left, Young got the ball back, needing two touchdowns. He got the first one quickly and cut the margin to five.
With a little over two minutes to play, and Texas out of timeouts, USC faced fourth-and-two on the Texas 44. Carroll went for it, and fullback Lendale White was stopped. The media sung Carroll’s praises for “playing to win”, even as Young had another chance.
I suppose I should never complain when the media looks beyond the short-term result of the play and into the bigger picture of whether the decision was a good idea, but in this case, I felt from the outset the correct move was to punt. Even allowing Young’s great game and the problems with the USC defense, the Longhorns would still have needed to go almost the length of the field without any timeouts in two minutes. The USC defense wasn’t that bad. At the very least, it represented better odds for the Trojans then getting a full two yards on a play when the Longhorn defense would be stacking the line of scrimmage.
Young drove the Longhorns to the nine-yard line. It was 4th-and-5. Just like 1983 and 1986 it was one play for a national championship. Young rolled right. No one was open, but USC’s containment broke down, and the quarterback basically walked into the end zone. Texas converted the two-point conversion and USC couldn’t do anything with the eight seconds that remained.
There would be no “three-peat.” Texas was national champions for the first time since 1969 in a 41-38 Rose Bowl epic.