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USC Notches Another 1

Leinart Throws for 5 TDs, Trojans Repeat as National Champions

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page D01

MIAMI, Jan. 4 -- The Orange Bowl kicked off Tuesday with all the hallmarks of a football classic: two storied opponents, each with flawless records; a national title at stake; a pair of Heisman Trophy winners and a supporting cast worthy of the hype.

But a disastrous first half by Oklahoma robbed it of the drama so many anticipated as four Sooners turnovers paved the way for Southern California's effortless waltz to a 55-19 victory and, with it, the school's 11th national championship.

Southern Cal's Dominique Byrd celebrates his 33-yard touchdown catch as Oklahoma's Lee Blankenship looks in the first half in Miami. (Alan Diaz -- AP)

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The Trojans ended the season with a 13-0 record and back-to-back national titles, silencing any dispute about whether they deserved sole possession of the top ranking. Against Oklahoma's vaunted defense, they scored more points than they had all season and rolled up 525 yards of offense.

"We didn't expect it to be this easy," Southern Cal Coach Pete Carroll said, "but the game went our way from the beginning."

While the game was best forgotten by the Sooners, who lost the Bowl Championship Series title game for a second consecutive year, it's sure to become a classic in the home of Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart, who threw an Orange Bowl record five touchdown passes and earned MVP honors. LenDale White added 118 rushing yards and two other scores.

Southern Cal's utter dominance sucked the life out of the Oklahoma fans who had flocked to Pro Player Stadium eager to celebrate the title they let slip away in losing the 2004 Sugar Bowl to Louisiana State. Their hopes were buoyed by dazzling freshman running back Adrian Peterson and a defense that hadn't surrendered a touchdown in the last three games. But on this night, Southern Cal scored five touchdowns before the first half was over.

The Trojans' defense created many of the scoring opportunities, forcing two fumbles and two interceptions in the first half. But Leinart's sure arm (18 of 35 for 332 yards) finished the job. He connected with wideout Steve Smith for three touchdowns and fired one each to Dwayne Jarrett and Dominque Byrd, whose one-handed grab of a 33-yard strike in the first quarter was worth the price of admission.

Meanwhile, Southern Cal's beefy defensive tackles and lightning fast linebackers took the wheels off Peterson, who was held under 100 yards for just the second time this season.

It was a sweet reward for the Trojans, who had to settle for a share of the 2003 national title after being overlooked for the BCS title game. "We're number one! Champs by ourselves!" gushed defensive end Shaun Cody. "This is so much better than last year!"

With 77,912 in the stands, Pro Player Stadium was electric at kickoff -- awash in personalities, pageantry and pyrotechnics.

Southern Cal's most notorious alum, O.J. Simpson, was on hand. NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal flipped the coin. Ashlee Simpson gyrated through halftime, and P. Diddy, Will Ferrell and Toby Keith supplied star wattage from the sideline. There were epic marching bands worthy of Busby Berkeley musicals; tickets changing hands at obscene prices and, best of all, an unparalleled assemblage of football talent poised to take the field.

Just beyond the spotlight's glare Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville was rooting for an Oklahoma victory in a turnover-plagued game -- "I was hoping we'd get a monsoon," he chuckled -- while lobbying writers for a share of national title. "It's hard to do what we did," Tuberville said of his Tigers' 13-0 record as reporters gather around. But Auburn's 16-13 Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech was hardly enough to rival the tour de force the Trojans were about to stage.

Oklahoma struck first, scoring on its first possession as quarterback Jason White capped a 12-play drive with a strike to Travis White.

The Trojans roared back to knot the score on Byrd's spectacular one-handed catch before stumbling into the end zone.

From there it was calamity for the Sooners. Oklahoma's Mark Bradley scooped up a 44-yard punt that was dribbling to rest near the end zone only to fumble it on the 6-yard line. Southern Cal recovered, and moments later, LenDale White bored in for a touchdown that gave the Trojans a 14-7 lead.

Jason White squandered a promising drive by heaving a ball at a receiver flanked by five USC defenders. Jason Leach snared the interception, and Leinart needed just 1 minute 41 seconds to engineer a third scoring drive, exploiting defensive back Marcus Walker on 18- and 54-yard completions.

White's second interception followed when a receiver slipped, and the Trojans' Eric Wright snagged it for a 22-yard return. In less than a minute, Leinart's third touchdown pass made it 28-7.

A wisecracking reporter broke the silence in a dumb-struck press box, shouting ,"Can we get Auburn here by halftime?"

But the score only grew more lopsided as Leinart's confidence grew and LenDale White and Reggie Bush finally found running room. The Trojans took a 38-10 lead into intermission. Sooners turnovers contributed to 24 of those points.

Said Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops, "You can't make as many mistakes as we did and expect to win."

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