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Team of the decade already? Sports view

Posted: Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Calling this one a statement game doesn't do it justice.

Southern California's devastating 55-19 win Tuesday night over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl was much more than that. Robbed of a chance to play for the Bowl Championship Series' share of the national title a year ago, the Trojans showed the BCS computers and any remaining doubters just how far off the mark they were.

So let's call this one a statement for the decade, even if we're only at the halfway point.

''This is a program that's flying,'' coach Pete Carroll said. ''There's no doubt about that.''

With 22 straight wins, the Trojans became the first team to grab two national championships since the calendar turned over a new century. That they did it by humiliating a Sooner team with one title this decade (2000), that put up similarly gaudy offensive and defensive stats and even matched USC in terms of Heisman Trophy candidates, put an exclamation point at the end of the statement.

At this time last year, after watching USC humble a very good Michigan team in the Rose Bowl, and then enduring a dreary, four-hour tractor pull of a Sugar Bowl game in which LSU muddled past the Sooners, I wrote: ''Southern California could beat these teams — back-to-back — and still make it to the beach in time to catch the sunset.''

Turns out that might have underestimated the Trojans, too.

Carroll arrived in Los Angeles in 2001 to find one of college football's traditional powers running on fumes. Carroll was still trying to recover from a case of burnout himself, having been run out of the NFL after unimpressive stints coaching the Jets and Patriots. He and USC needed each other in ways that are only now becoming apparent.

His nice-guy persona and enthusiasm for the game were derided in the pros, but they were a perfect fit in laid-back Southern California. Those same qualities, in a contradictory way, made it easier for Carroll to bring some badly needed NFL-style organizational structure to a program that had stumbled from season to underperforming season without any real plans on how to improve.

He gave his assistants a wide berth and his players the chance to play immediately. That willingness to experiment only got him mocked in the hidebound NFL. But at USC, spreading around the responsibilities — and the credit — brought out the best in just about everybody.

It didn't hurt, of course, that Carroll was a genius at recruiting, and that he wasted no time assembling the talent he needed to play the wide-open offense run by mad scientist Norm Chow and the aggressive defense that is his own specialty. Think of some of the players that have already come and gone during Carroll's brief stay — quarterback Carson Palmer, receiver Mike Williams and safety Troy Polamalu — and the only reason they're not missed even more is because of how quickly they were replaced by guys like Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Shaun Cody.

Even so, those spinning, diving, one-handed catches made by Dominique Byrd, Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett to put the Orange Bowl out of reach by the end of the first half weren't just about ability. Ditto for the crunching stops that linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Dallas Sartz made all night to bottle up the Sooners' outstanding freshman running back, Adrian Peterson. They were about desire, too, about everybody wearing the maroon and gold wanting to hold up their end of the bargain.

Nobody has done that so far this decade better than Carroll. Southern California is well on its way to becoming the game's next dynasty, and if the Trojans fulfill that promise, it won't be hard to pinpoint the moment or the man that got the ball rolling.

The game has changed in all kinds of ways since Notre Dame established college football's first empire in the 1920s. But the one constant for teams that put their stamp on each decade has been the emergence of a leader with a vision grand enough to nourish and sustain them.

It started with Knute Rockne and the Fighting Irish, then continued through Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, Bear Bryant at Alabama, Joe Paterno at Penn State, Tom Osborne at Oklahoma and most recently, Bobby Bowden at Florida State.

Carroll wouldn't put himself in that class, nor should anyone else — yet. But that could just be a matter of time.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org.

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