Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
31 Oct 2005
by Russell Levine
The USC Trojans get most of the attention from football followers in their home city of Los Angeles, and deservedly so. Saturday's rout of Washington State pushed USC's winning streak to 30 games, a span that includes last year's Bowl Championship Series crown and the AP national title in 2003. The Trojans are quarterbacked by the college game's biggest star in defending Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, who turned down NFL millions to lead the good life in college for another year.
And a good life it is. Without an NFL franchise in Los Angeles, the Trojans are the biggest thing going in a city that craves luminaries the way a drowning man craves a life jacket. Leinart has become an A-list celebrity and gossip-column regular. When tailback LenDale White scored a touchdown against Washington State, he tossed the ball to a fan wearing his no. 21 standing behind the end zone -- a routine occurrence except that the fan was Snoop Dogg.
But while coach Pete Carroll's band barnstorms the college football world as perhaps the most celebrated unit in team sports, there is another college football program right in USC's backyard making plenty of noise this year as it improbably heads towards a season-ending battle of unbeatens against the Trojans.
A few miles up the road from USC sits Westwood, home to the UCLA campus and the undefeated Bruins, another team that is a perfect fit for Tinseltown. What the Bruins lack in celebrity wattage they make up for in spades in Hollywood endings. UCLA improved to 8-0 Saturday with their most improbable comeback yet -- a 30-27 overtime victory at Stanford in which the Bruins scored 21 unanswered points in the final 7:04 just to force the extra session.
It was the Bruins' fourth win this month in which they had trailed by at least 10 points in the fourth quarter. That sentence almost has to be read twice to truly appreciate the magnitude of the accomplishment. Some programs go years without a single comeback of that extent, yet the Bruins are authoring one nearly every week. As a result, UCLA finds itself tied atop the Pac-10 with their more famous citymates.
With winnable games remaining at Arizona and at home against Arizona State (combined record: 5-10), UCLA could easily be 10-0 heading into its showdown at USC on December 3 -- a contest the Bruins will have three weeks to prepare for. If both teams are undefeated, UCLA may finally steal some of the media attention USC has been enjoying all season. UCLA has hovered under the radar all year after being unranked in the preseason polls, a result of a 6-6 record last season. But a closer look at the two programs reveals more similarities than differences.
Both schools feature explosive offenses led by standout quarterbacks and running backs, and question marks on defense. And there's a shared history of come-from-behind wins, too. USC faced significant deficits at both Oregon and Arizona State before rallying to win, though not in quite as dramatic a fashion as UCLA's October exploits. And then there was the last-second win at Notre Dame on October 15, a game you might have heard a thing or two about.
If Leinart fails to repeat as the Heisman winner this season, it may well be because the award goes to his backfield mate, Reggie Bush. But if not for that pair, UCLA's tandem of Drews, quarter Drew Olson and tailback Maurice Jones-Drew, might well be getting fitted for tuxedos for a December trip to New York.
The similarities are eerie. Leinart is third in the nation in passing efficiency, having thrown for 2,512 yards with 19 touchdowns and six interceptions. Olson is fifth, with 2,167 yards, 23 touchdowns, and just three interceptions. Bush leads the nation with 197 all-purpose yards per game and has scored 13 touchdowns. Jones-Drew is fifth at 184 yards per contest and has reached the end zone 18 times. The net result is that USC is first in scoring offense; UCLA is fifth.
Jones-Drew has a Hollywood-worthy story of his own. At the beginning of the season, he was known simply as Maurice Drew before adding the "Jones" to honor his late grandfather, who suffered a heart attack while attending his grandson's game on September 10 and died shortly thereafter. Jones-Drew asked the UCLA trainers to add his grandfather's name to his jersey as a tribute to the man who was largely responsible for raising him.
While USC is statistically better on defense than the Bruins, allowing 339 yards per game versus 415 for the Bruins, the Trojans have been more vulnerable to the pass. Taken together, all of the stats suggest that when the Trojans and Bruins take the field together in five weeks, the scoreboard operator will earn his day's wage.
It's fitting that this year's game will be contested at the L.A. Coliseum. In the heyday of this rivalry, both teams played their home games at the grand old stadium, and both would wear their home uniforms when they faced each other. UCLA moved its home games to Pasadena's Rose Bowl in 1982 after the Raiders moved to Los Angeles and took up residence at the Coliseum.
While USC has the richer football history and tradition, it didn't always enjoy its current status as the toast of L.A. USC had a losing record as recently as 2000, before Carroll arrived to rescue the legendary program. UCLA was a serious national-title contender in 1998 before losing its last two games to finish 10-2 for the second straight year. But the Bruins have lost 34 games since then, making this season's rise under third-year head coach Karl Dorrell all the more surprising.
All this is occurring amid swirling rumors that the NFL is considering shoehorning the hurricane-displaced New Orleans Saints into the Los Angeles market for next season. One might reasonably consider the wisdom of that move during the current L.A. football revival; with two celebrated programs sporting undefeated records and rankings at or near the top of the polls, the nation's second-largest media market seems to be getting along just fine without the NFL, thank you.
Perhaps the USC and UCLA players should arrive for their game on December 3 via the red carpet. After all, in this Hollywood story, USC is the big-budget blockbuster, while UCLA is the independent film hoping to sweep in and steal the Oscar, or at least the Pac-10 title. If it does, perhaps Snoop Dogg and the celebrity set will make their way to Westwood next fall.
In 1995, Michigan played the first game of the football season, opening at home against Virginia in the now-defunct Pigskin Classic. The big news that day was Michigan's comeback. Trailing 17-0 after a long touchdown run by Tiki Barber, Michigan staged an epic rally, winning on a fourth-down, last-play touchdown pass to Mercury Hayes.
But the lasting impact of that game did not come from Barber's run or Hayes's catch. No, that was the day that Michigan took the field with a large Nike swoosh attached to the shoulder of its jerseys. The site is so common now, that we forget that just 10 years ago, Michigan's decision to "sell out to the swoosh" was headline-worthy news. Of course, when the season got into full swing the following week and lots of other teams had the same emblem on their jerseys, the furor died down a bit.
But when I saw the jerseys that day I turned to a friend in Michigan Stadium and remarked that I sometimes wondered if Nike would be satisfied, until Michigan had a swoosh on either side of its helmets and a giant one in the end zone.
Thankfully, that hasn't come to pass, but now I sometimes wonder if Nike won't stop until it has ruined college football uniforms forever. Witness this week's unveiling of specialized "court jester" Nike jerseys for Virginia Tech and Florida. Supposedly, Nike made the same alternating sleeve-color jersey for USC, but Pete Carroll politely declined to have his troops wear them. For that move alone, Carroll should be the college coach of the year. I mean, is there a single football fan in America that actually liked those Florida and Virginia Tech unis? If so, I want to hear from you. Look for Nike's personal test laboratory, Oregon, to unveil a similar jersey this week. Of course, given the state of Oregon's current Nike-designed togs, the court-jester look might be an improvement.
Nike has also suitably ruined the uniforms of Miami, Arizona, Oregon State and others with excess piping and stripes across the mid-backs of jerseys. Even Michigan's road jersey has a subtle yellow piping across the back. The Arizona uniform is a particular abomination, with "ARIZONA" in large type across the back, just below the numbers. Truly horrific.
At the risk of sounding like an old-fart traditionalist, would it kill Nike to not suck the life and soul out of the sport with these designs? It's bad enough to mess with the Arizonas and Oregon States of the college football world, but when you go defacing uniforms at traditional powers like Michigan and Florida, you've gone too far. How long before we see Penn State with one blue sleeve, one white? I think I'd prefer the swoosh across the end zone.
One of the readers in the Seventh Day Adventure thread this week came up with the perfect analogy for UCLA's comeback against Stanford. Peachy said "The Stanford-UCLA game seems like one of those first-round NCAA games where the underdog is leading late, and finally the favorite is like -- oh, right, this is a real game we're playing here, and then things turn around in a hurry."
Nothing comes apart faster than an underdog hanging on against a big favorite when things start to turn. Players, coaches and fans all get caught up and end up feeding the collapse like oxygen feeds an open flame. Such was the case for Stanford coach Walt Harris, this week's JLS Trophy winner. Harris failed to do anything to change the tempo of the game as UCLA began its rally with a quick touchdown drive to pull to 24-10. Once the game got within a touchdown at 24-17, Harris finally went to the pass, with predictable results. Incompletions stopped the clock, giving UCLA plenty of time to tack on the tying touchdown. Harris's mistake was in failing to realize what was occurring until it was too late. A few short passes right after the first UCLA touchdown might have helped Stanford chew some more time off the clock. Instead, the run-run-punt strategy only helped hand the momentum to UCLA.
1. Southern Cal (1): Separated themselves a little bit this week.
2. Texas (2): I'll give them a first-half mulligan vs. Oklahoma State, but the margin between 2-3 is now razor thin.
3. Virginia Tech (3): Got my first extended look at Marcus Vick and I was impressed.
4. Notre Dame (4): During the bye week, Charlie Weis called his NFL rumor-starting friends to say thanks.
5. Miami (Florida) (7): Nice rally after a slow start vs. North Carolina.
6. Alabama (6): 35 points vs. Utah State doesn't mean the offense is back.
7. UCLA (8): These comebacks are getting ridiculous, but the defense is a real concern.
8. LSU (9): It's now November, and I still don't feel like I have a read on this team.
9. Penn State (10): Controls its own destiny in the Big Ten.
10. Georgia (5): Couldn't overcome loss of Shockley vs. Florida.
11. Ohio State (13): Ted Ginn sightings the last couple weeks.
12. Florida (19): Nice job by Urban scrapping the option vs. Georgia.
13. Oregon (14): DNP.
14. Florida State (12): Not real impressive in win over Maryland.
15. Auburn (15): Still waiting for them to beat a quality opponent.
16. Wisconsin (17): Calhoun for Heisman, anyone?
17. Boston College (11): Good enough to play with anyone, not good enough to win.
18. West Virginia (20): DNP.
19. Michigan (23): Finally, a non-heart attack inducing game.
20. Fresno State (22): Avoided the distractions of a Hawaii road trip.
21. Texas Tech (25): Got over Texas hangover in time to shut out Baylor.
22. TCU (18): A little too close vs. San Diego State.
23. Cal (24): DNP.
24. Georgia Tech (NR): I'm really reaching here.
25. Rutgers (NR): Strictly some Jersey love.
Dropped out: Northwestern (16), Minnesota (21).
Games I watched: Boston College-Virginia Tech, Michigan-Northwestern, parts of Florida-Georgia, Florida State-Maryland, UCLA-Stanford, Washington State-USC, South Carolina-Tennessee.
Ed. Note: Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun
53 comments, Last at 02 Nov 2005, 9:40pm by Pat