ESPN spent a few weeks hyping the Trojans up as a best-ever team and Texas star quarterback Vince Young was already broiling about losing the Heisman Trophy to USC running back Reggie Bush. Pete Carroll’s USC program at the time was the biggest thing in LA—and the flashiest, most dominant program in the sport. USC had eclipsed the 50-point mark seven times that season with quarterback Matt Leinart (the Heisman winner for the previous year), Bush, bruising running back LenDale White, and an experienced O-line.
Texas was riding a long winning streak of its own at 19 games. Young was the team’s star but they had 23 other guys who would end up playing in the NFL from this team.
On the way into the stadium, I’d bumped into one of the dads of the Trojans who I’d gotten to know over the previous two years. ‘We’re gonna boat-race ‘em,” he said, without a trace of worry. I didn’t disagree especially after having seen the Trojans beat No. 2 Oklahoma by almost 40 in the title game the previous year.
This game had everything, including one of the all-time head-scratcher moments when Bush attempted a downfield lateral to Brad Walker. Who? No one who covered USC had ever heard of Walker till a few minutes after that play. (Walker wasn’t even listed in the game program.) The Bush flip didn’t work so well, but USC had a 12-point lead with 6:42 remaining. Right after USC scored, I remember scanning the Texas sideline for Young and seeing him just standing there bobbing his head, ready for his shot to be the hero.
I was working for ESPN at the time and was sitting next to our college football editor, who happened to be a UT grad. I smacked him on the shoulder and said something like, ‘How awesome is this?!?’ His shirt was sweat-soaked — like he’d just gotten out of a pool. It was just like a fun, four-hour rollercoaster ride, and no doubt exhausting if you were a USC or Texas fan.
By then, USC’s defense was gassed. Young accounted for all 69 yards on UT’s touchdown drive to bring Texas within five with about four minutes left. The defense then got Young the ball back when Carroll opted to give White the ball on a fourth-and-two at the Texas 45. Bush, shockingly, was on the sidelines for that crucial play.
Young took care of the rest, leading UT down the field after converting a fourth-and-five from the USC 8. He dropped back, didn’t see an open receiver, so he sprinted towards the corner of the end zone to score the go-ahead touchdown. He also scored on a subsequent two-point play to give the Longhorns a 41-38 victory and its first national title in 35 years. Texas’ top five tacklers that night were all defensive backs. The stars played like stars, too. Bush produced a combined 177 yards rushing and receiving. Leinart threw for almost 400 yards against a secondary that included three first-round picks. White ran for 124 yards and three touchdowns.
In every game I’ve covered from the press box as a writer, you make your way down to the field at around the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter (usually the writers aren’t allowed on the sidelines till then). But this was one so tight, you didn’t want to miss anything by being stuck waiting for the elevator or in a crowded tunnel where you couldn’t see.
Long after the game was over, I was in the USC locker room and White was one of the last players in there. He was on his cell phone, talking about the game. I remember he said a line that was five words long regarding what he saw from Young that night. Three of those words would be unprintable. It was probably one of the biggest compliments White would ever bestow on a player.