By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 20, 2005
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 19 - While most of the East Coast slept Saturday night, Southern California and Fresno State engaged in a back-and-forth in-state slugfest that nearly changed the course of the college football season.
Top-ranked USC held off No. 16 Fresno State, 50-42, at the Los Angeles Coliseum to extend its winning streak to 33 games and remain on course for what would be an unprecedented third straight national title. The Trojans officially improved to 11-0 at 2:20 a.m.
Three other schools held halftime leads against USC this season, but the Trojans avoided defeat each time, often pouring on points in the second half to turn close games into routs. On Saturday, USC overcame an 11-point deficit in the first half by scoring 28 points in the third quarter.
Twice USC led by 13 points in the second half. And twice Fresno State rallied back, like few thought the Bulldogs could.
USC running back Reggie Bush was the most electrifying player on the field all night, as he broke the school single-game record for all-purpose yards and left much of the crowd of 90,007 awed. But he fumbled the ball on a fourth-quarter kickoff return, which allowed Fresno State to score a touchdown one play later that gave the Bulldogs a 42-41 advantage.
The Trojans then drove 89 yards for what amounted to the game-winning drive, which was capped by a 2-yard touchdown run by LenDale White. The victory was not assured until safety Darnell Bing intercepted Paul Pinegar's pass in the end zone with 1 minute, 37 seconds remaining.
None of Bush's runs awed the crowd as much as the 50-yard touchdown burst he had late in the third quarter, which staked the Trojans to a 41-28 lead. From the 50, Bush received the handoff and started left. When he got near the sideline around the 25-yard line, Bush stopped, freezing free safety Tyrone Culver, then reversed footing and raced to the right toward the end zone.
The play left Culver literally gasping for breath and left little doubt who the best player on the field was Saturday.
Bush's 65-yard run in the first quarter set up USC's only touchdown of the first half, which helped the Trojans stay within eight points at halftime. It was the fourth time USC had trailed at halftime this season.
Bush had several dazzling runs in the second half that vaulted USC into the lead. Early in the third quarter, Bush raced 35 yards to the Fresno 1. He first juked cornerback Richard Marshall, then dashed by two other defenders to set up a 1-yard touchdown sneak by quarterback Matt Leinart. On the first play of USC's next possession, Bush darted 45 yards untouched into the end zone.
Later in the quarter, Fresno put itself in position to take back the lead, but quarterback Paul Pinegar threw an interception in the end zone. His pass was intended for Paul Williams, but free safety Scott Ware stepped in front near the goal line.
Fresno showed no signs of intimidation throughout. Even during pregame warm-ups, Marshall jawed with USC players warming up on the opposite side of the field. During the game, Bulldogs' linebacker Alan Goodwin did not shy away from getting in the face of Bush on more than one occasion in the first half.
For the past few years, Fresno State has been viewed on the national scene as a perennial threat to BCS schools. The Bulldogs had beaten 10 of their past 17 opponents from BCS conferences.
This season, Fresno Coach Pat Hill has appeared more focused on winning the Western Athletic Conference title than trying to slay BCS opponents. The Bulldogs put themselves in position to win the conference championship for the first time since 1999 when they snapped Boise State's 31-game winning streak in conference play on Nov. 10.
Many locals who traveled to the game viewed it as the biggest sporting event in the history of Fresno State. An estimated 20,000 fans from Fresno traveled almost four hours down Interstate 5 for the contest that did not end until the middle of the night on the East Coast.
The Bulldogs were the aggressors in the first half, converting two critical fourth-and-1 plays on two of their scoring drives. Pinegar, the school's all-time leader in touchdown passes, completed 17 of 22 attempts in the first half for 203 yards and two touchdowns.
Leinart also was impressive, completing 14 of 22 passes in the first half. But it was Bush's electrifying play that largely kept the Trojans within range. His 65-yard scamper down the sideline in the first quarter help set up USC's first touchdown, a five-yard run by running back LenDale White. Bush ran for 118 yards on nine carries in the first half.
It was only the beginning.