Jan. 2, 2007
LOS ANGELES (AP) - The Rose Bowl was supposed to be a consolation game of sorts.
Not for Southern California.
Besides putting the capper on another excellent year, it was a successful beginning for next season, when the Trojans figure to be even better. And this was a team that almost played in its third straight BCS championship game.
"We missed our opportunity to take it all the way to the top," coach Pete Carroll said following No. 8 USC's 32-18 victory over No. 3 Michigan. "But it doesn't matter, it's over with. We won a Rose Bowl and had a great night and did capture the feeling as we go into the offseason.
"It was important for us to reconnect with who we are and what our program is all about and play big in a big game. We have taken a great step for the future, and I think it's a very powerful statement for our team and the program."
Only four USC players who started in Monday's Rose Bowl are seniors, although it's possible leading receiver Dwayne Jarrett and leading rusher Chauncey Washington - a pair of juniors - will pass up their final year of eligibility to turn pro.
They must decide by Jan. 15.
With the many talented players returning and another in a long line of outstanding recruiting classes expected to join them, the Trojans will probably enter next season ranked No. 1 in preseason polls.
"I'm really excited for our team because they've been set up for having a great season next year," senior center Ryan Kalil said. "Experience is everything - it's what you need."
And that's what the Trojans will have, led by quarterback John David Booty and a defense that allowed only 74 points in the final six games this season.
"We've played great defense the whole second half of the season," Carroll said. "We've never taken a step back at any time. I'm really fired up about it."
Linebacker Dallas Sartz was the only USC senior to start on defense in the Rose Bowl, and he was one of just three upperclassmen listed on the two-deep defensive depth chart.
Booty will be a fifth-year senior next year and figures to be a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, perhaps following in the footsteps of USC quarterbacks Carson Palmer, who won the award in 2002, and Matt Leinart, the recipient two years later.
Booty's performance in the Rose Bowl - 27-of-45 for 391 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions - was certainly Heisman-worthy.
"That was as much fun as I've had in my entire life," Booty said regarding the second half, when the Trojans put the game away by scoring on five straight possessions. "We came out on top and I was really able to live my dream."
Booty completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 3,347 yards and 29 touchdowns with nine interceptions. That's quite a season for a first-year starter.
"He's really, really a great football player," Carroll said. "He played rock-solid all year long. This is just a great showcase opportunity for him leading into next year."
Despite a 33-31 loss at Oregon State in late October, the Trojans (11-2) would have faced No. 1 Ohio State next Monday for the national championship had they beaten crosstown rival UCLA last month at the Rose Bowl. They didn't, losing 13-9 to snap their record streak of 63 straight games with at least 20 points.
"Our program knows how to get refocused. We did it," Carroll said. "The fact that we had our issue the last time we were here - our guys know, that wasn't us. That was the game out of the last 65 games that stood out because it was so unusual and so different."
USC, which won 11 or more games for the fifth straight season, has returned to elite status since Carroll took over in 2001.
The Trojans went 6-6 in his first year, but are 59-6 in the last five. And that's prompted rumors every year about this time that he'll return to the NFL, where he coached for 16 years - four as a head coach - before coming to USC.
Carroll was emphatic when asked if he had any doubts about returning.
"I hope so, if they keep me around. No, there's no question. I have no question," he said.
Who came blame him? The 55-year-old has stated repeatedly he's having the time of his life at USC. The post-Rose Bowl celebration made clear the Trojans were, indeed, happy to be there, even if a national championship wasn't at stake.
"We had a ball getting prepared, we had fun the whole time," Carroll said. "We worked really hard and we got the rewards."