At 3 a.m. EST Sunday morning, Reggie Bush stood shirtless in Southern California's locker room and pointed to his sore elbow and stiff back. His legs, he noted, felt fine, even after a virtuoso performance that hardly anyone east of the Mississippi witnessed.
While the East Coast slept Saturday night, the running back provided an electrifying effort that saved the Trojans' season and resuscitated his chances to win the Heisman Trophy.
"I felt like every time I touched the ball I could score," he said. "It's a special feeling."
Bush accumulated 513 all-purpose yards, more than a quarter-mile, which shattered both the school and Pacific-10 Conference records. He rushed for 294 yards, the most for a Trojan since Ricky Bell's 347 in 1976. Bush had touchdown runs of 45 and 50 yards to lead USC to a 50-42 victory over Fresno State.
Numbers do little to describe his night. Each run was overshadowed by the next. The one that most awed the crowd of 90,007 at Los Angeles Coliseum came on the 50-yard touchdown toward the end of the third quarter.
After he received the ball, Bush sprinted left 25 yards toward the sideline, where Fresno free safety Tyrone Culver intersected his path. But Bush stopped, as if he hit a pause button. Culver kept moving, while Bush reversed direction, headed to the right and directly into the end zone.
Culver was left gasping for breath. And Bush's teammate, safety Darnell Bing, said he was so stunned by the stop-and-go maneuver he thought it was out of a playground basketball video.
"He was pure magic," USC Coach Pete Carroll said of Bush's night.
Even with Bush's brilliance, USC's winning streak, now 33 games, and its national title hopes nearly perished. Saturday was the fourth time this season that the top-ranked Trojans (11-0) trailed at halftime.
When USC faced similar deficits against Oregon and Arizona State, the Trojans poured on points in the second half, forcing opponents into eventual submission. Against No. 16 Fresno State, USC scored 28 in the third quarter, but twice Fresno State rallied from 13-point holes. The victory was not ensured until Bing intercepted a pass from Paul Pinegar in the end zone with less than two minutes remaining.
"We don't want to be able to blow everyone out," Bush said. "It's not fun like that. These types of games are fun, a little scary, but fun."
The Bulldogs took a 42-41 lead with less than 10 minutes left after a rare miscue by Bush. He fumbled the ball on a kickoff return and Fresno State recovered. The Bulldogs scored on the next snap when Wendell Mathis ran it in from 18 yards. USC wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett said Bush was particularly frustrated after the fumble and that teammates tried to get him to think positively.
"In those situations you feel like you can almost do anything," said Bush, who said he got too careless and committed a "dumb" mistake. Never did he think the mistake would cost his team the game. To that end, several USC players said they never felt the game was in doubt because they had come to expect players like Bush to make plays when most needed.
"Can you win every game forever?" Carroll said. "I don't know, but we're trying to do that. Some nights you are going to go up against a team that plays really well and they are going to have their shot at it."
Carroll said the momentum swing that enabled USC to win occurred at the start of the third quarter when Bush had two key runs, a 35-yard scamper that set up a touchdown and the 45-yard touchdown run, in the first five minutes of the quarter.
Bush acknowledged afterward that he had felt some frustration in recent games in which he was unable to break big runs. Since the Notre Dame game on Oct. 15, the only game in which he rushed for more than 100 yards came Nov. 5 against Stanford.
"I was a little frustrated, but the most important thing for me was to stay positive for my teammates," Bush said. "The most important thing is the team."
USC had won with such ease this past month that its most dynamic performer, Bush, hardly had opportunities to acquire gaudy statistics. As the Trojans neared a potential third straight national title, Bush's chances at winning the Heisman Trophy appeared to diminish. Now both accomplishments seem to go hand in hand.
Bush has averaged 183 rushing yards in the four games, Oregon, Arizona State, Notre Dame and Fresno State, in which USC trailed at halftime.
"I guess you can say in all the tough games we had," Bush said, "I've done a good job in taking over the game."
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