- In arguably the greatest college football game ever played, the Longhorns denied USC a third straight title.
- Young, who went 30-2 as a starter at Texas, rallied the Horns from a 12-point deficit in the final 6:42 of the game.
- This week, the game was aired on a 24-hour loop on Longhorn Network and then re-broadcast in prime time on ESPN.
ESPN went straight for the heart strings this week and America was more than happy to retake a much-traveled trip down memory lane.
On Tuesday night, the Longhorn Network started a 24-hour loop of Texas’ historic 41-38 national championship game win over the Goliath that was USC at the 2006 Rose Bowl. On Thursday, ESPN aired the game in prime time to launch its “Throwback Thursday: CFB Classics” series, followed by highlights and interviews on SportsCenter.
When the sports world is at a standstill, play the nostalgia card and watch the viewers tune in. It wasn’t the 35.6 million who watched from home 14 years ago, but there were plenty of coronavirus coverage-battered eyes glued to the set and even more fingers tweeting their thoughts from home, including former Texas coach Mack Brown, game defensive MVP Michael Huff and the pied piper himself, Vince Young, who spoke with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter following the broadcast.
“I was just texting with Matt Leinart,” Young said, chuckling. “He said, ‘I hate you right now.'”
As someone who was actually in Pasadena that night, the memories from that game are so numerous that one space just doesn’t do it justice. I was the backup beat writer that season — fours years from becoming a columnist — so this is a first of sorts, getting to write a game column on arguably the greatest college football game ever played.
For the purpose of time and space, I won’t spend a lot of time on the first half except to mention how utterly devastated USC’s Reggie Bush appeared to be after carelessly pitching the ball to an unsuspecting teammate after a long catch and run on the first play of the second quarter. Huff’s fumble recovery cost the Trojans a chance to go up 14-0.
In later stories, some wrote that ABC’s Keith Jackson didn’t call a great game in what was his last turn in the broadcast booth, but the old warhorse was totally in command of the moment when it mattered most. After USC took a 38-26 lead on Dwayne Jarrett’s touchdown catch with 6:42 left — a play that knocked colliding defensive backs Michael Griffin and Tarell Brown out of the game with a neck injury and a broken arm, respectively — Jackson, to his credit, wasn’t about to start a premature Trojans three-peat coronation.
“That (lead) is nowhere near the neighborhood of safe,” he told America.
Meanwhile, broadcast partner Dan Fouts sounded as if he was ready to unleash the balloons and confetti to celebrate USC’s 35th straight win and third straight title.
“This is USC,” Fouts said. “This is the two-time defending national champion with one of the greatest defensive coordinators slash head coaches of all time, Pete Carroll.”
With time to take a breath in the press box as trainers attended to the fallen Griffin and Brown, I leaned over to columnist Kirk Bohls and asked, “Is it over, Duck?”
“If it was anybody but Vince, I’d say it is,” he said. “But no, it’s not over.”
Entering the game, Texas had trailed by 10 or more points only five times in Young’s 31 starts — twice to Oklahoma State (2004 and 2005) and one time each to Washington State (the 2003 Holiday Bowl), Oklahoma (2004) and Michigan (the 2005 Rose Bowl).
The Horns went 3-2 in those contests, including two wins over the Cowboys in which Texas outscored them a combined 77-0 in the second half to win going away.
In the years since, whenever Kirk and I are covering a big game, there’s always a point when one of us will ask: Is it over? It’s really an unspoken tribute to that night in Pasadena.
Now, about the comeback.
It didn’t help that the refs committed a rather large gaffe on the very next play from scrimmage after Young completed a 7-yard pass to Limas Sweed, who stepped out of bounds with 6:38 left. The clock kept running — 28 seconds ticked off — before Texas got off another play. Turns out it hurt USC more than it hurt Texas.
Undeterred, Young scored to cut the Trojans’ lead to five, setting the stage for the greatest defensive stand in program history. The fourth-and-1 stop of USC freight train LenDale White is credited in most accounts to defensive end Brian Robison, and rightly so, though he had help from Drew Kelson, Huff and Aaron Harris.
Robison said later that he went against his coaches’ instructions to rush upfield on the fateful play. Instead, he swept to his left and ran into the middle of the line, headlong into the legs of White, who had been unstoppable up to that point.
What’s not always mentioned is cornerback Aaron Ross stripping White on third down, else White might have picked up a first down and allowed the Trojans three more downs to run more precious seconds off the clock.
Young got the ball back — Carroll’s worst nightmare realized — and the rest, as they say, is history.
Two passes to Brian Carter, one to Quan Cosby and a facemask penalty tacked on set it up for Young to run into the arms of history, thanks to offensive tackle Justin Blalock, whose block opened up the scoring lane. USC defensive end Frostee Rucker was sucked in by having to cover Selvin Young in pass coverage. He has said in previous years that he futilely “Forrest-Gumped” his way back toward Young, who danced past him for the game-winning score.
Carroll carelessly spending his final timeout before the 2-point conversion was lost at the time amid the Texas celebration. In the weeks that followed, some like me chalked it up to him still being punch drunk from Young’s touchdown.
Common sense would tell us that either way, USC was going to need a field goal, to tie it or win it. The timeout was more important than the two points. I did read Thursday that a USC assistant actually called the timeout while Carroll was instructing Leinart and the offense on what do with those 19 seconds that remained.
No timeouts effectively took away Leinart’s bread-and-butter play — the seam route down the middle — and ended USC’s title reign.
Bedlam ensued. Texas bedlam, not those guys north of us. Confetti for days. Hugs, tears, Longhorns rapping, VY dancing on the stage.
“High school football in the state of Texas … we love our fans, they love it,” Brown, ever the recruiter, told ESPN’s John Saunders after the win. Every preps coach in the state beamed with pride that night and a state full of 10-year-olds vowed to someday become Longhorns. How could they not?
Shoutout to the late Saunders, who asked Vince on the stage if he would be back for his senior season. Young had insisted in the days leading up to the game that he would return.
“Wherever we gotta go, we’ll be back, baby!” Young said to roars of approval.
The next night, he went to Vegas and then three months later to the Tennessee Titans, as the third overall pick of the 2006 draft.
Many of us have lamented what would have happened had Young come back to improve upon that 30-2 record as a starter. His replacement, Colt McCoy, proved to be a superstar himself eventually, but he wasn’t ready to pilot a championship repeat as a redshirt freshman that next season.
The ride was over, but what great fun it was to relive that ride again.