Late to the Game: Really Late to THE Game, Part I


Confession time: I’ve never watched the 2006 BCS National Championship Game.


I caught the final couple minutes at a bar in New Brunswick, New Jersey—a saloon with the type of moniker that only exists in a college town, The Ale ‘N ‘wich, while waiting for a date that never panned out. So I saw Vince Young become VINCE YOUNG on 4th and 5 from the 9. But I missed the rest.

Anyway, since then, the highlights from the Rose Bowl have trickled into my life, plus I’ve watched the 30 for 30 documentary Trojan War, so I’ve seen most of the game. But it dawned on me that I should watch the most famous game in Texas history—and also what is considered by many to be the greatest college football game of all time.

Here’s my running diary of the 2006 Rose Bowl in all its glory. Here’s part I: the first half.


My initial thought: Television looked awful as recently as 10 years ago. Wow, does this game exist in HD? Can I see the greatest game in college football history* in a format that doesn’t look like I’m watching it on a Trinitron?

While watching the intro to the game, I have to figure out who Keith Jackson is, which is odd, because when I asked my colleagues, they acted like I was asking who was President of the United States. Remember, I grew up watching Rutgers vs Temple. They didn’t flex too many of those into primetime. I’m reminded during pregame of another moment in Texas lore that I’m cognizant of, when, after the 2005 Rose Bowl, Vince Young defiantly declared, “We’ll be baaaaaack.” Damn, that’s audacious. But it worked.

National Anthem time, and who else to sing it but a pre-homewrecking LeAnn Rimes? She does a fine job. And the coin toss is performed by … wait for it … Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor? Huh?

Texas wins the toss, and defers to the second half. Seems like Texas is daring the most potent offense to bump up against its highly touted defense.

Jackson is, in a nutshell, pumped as heck. “We’re gonna play football, YIIPPEEE,” he exclaims.

First Quarter

Texas sets the tone in stuffing Heisman winner Reggie Bush on the kickoff return and then again on the first play from scrimmage, eventually forcing a three-and-out. Not bad against the best offense in the country.

I have never heard of any of these Texas defensive linemen or linebackers being introduced by Jackson and his partner, former Chargers great Dan Fouts. The entire Texas secondary played in NFL, though, so I know the Griffin brothers, Michael Huff, and Tarell Brown, who I wrote about in an early installment of this column.

Oh man, Aaron Ross fumbles the first punt of the game. I know Ross as the following season’s first-round pick by my favorite NFL team, the New York Giants (and a member of two Super Bowl-winning rosters), and as the husband of Olympic gold-medalist sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross. What a duo, but man, that fumble is a huge momentum swing.

Fouts compares Reggie Bush to a combo of Barry Sanders and Walter Payton. Here’s the media inflating USC, even if Bush was transcendent in 2005. Matt Leinart makes a spectacular out pass to David Kirtman, and I’m reminded that Leinart used to be one of the greatest quarterbacks in the country. This Leinart-Bush-LenDale White combination was so lethal, and yet panned out to very little in the NFL.

Texas commits a late hit on Leinart; the Texas defense looks a little jumpy. They are almost called for a helmet-to-helmet on the previous pass to Kirtman. LenDale White punches it in, and just like that, its 7-0 USC. Ross has to feel sick on the sidelines after that, and Texas fans must feel so deflated. Vince Young hasn’t even seen the field yet.

After commercial, USC’s White is chirping at the camera. Contextually, it’s pretty funny because I know he’s about to lose this game, flame out in the NFL, and along the way claim that he lost 30 pounds because he stopped drinking tequila for six months.

Selvin Young gets the first carry of the game. I know Young because I interviewed him a few months ago about his custom food truck company in Houston. Nice guy, and humble to boot. On a play-action pass, Young hits David Thomas with a strike over the middle.

Dan Fouts is now talking about his keys to Texas winning the game, which are essentially that Young has to play well (he has to be “inVINCEible”) and they have to stop Bush.You mean the Heisman winner and his immediate runner-up are the best players on their respective teams? Golly.

Mack goes for it on 4th and 1 and doesn’t get it. Momentum hasn’t just swung toward USC, the pendulum is about to completely circle around. Texas gets a break though when a swing pass-option to Steve Smith for a sure touchdown is overthrown by Dwayne Jarrett.

Stray observation: Fouts just said that the game-clock operator “has cottonmouth.” No comment.

Another personal foul penalty extends a USC drive, an “incidental facemask,” which is no longer called. This game is giving me flashbacks—archaic penalties, Leinart being good at football, standard definition television—but I kind of like it.

Damn, Bush is good, sprinting an inside run down inside the Texas 30, losing a shoe in the process. On the next play, Tarell Brown drops an easy interception near the goal line and Fouts says that the Texas defensive backs “can’t catch so good.”

Pete Carroll goes for it on 4th and 1 and fails just as Mack did. I wonder if there’ll be another big 4th down play in this game.

Jamaal Charles is in the game! I’ve never seen him play in college. Vince Young just sells a run option so well that the camera operator follows Charles as VY scampers for a first down. Yikes, Charles fumbles just after, but Texas recovers. Still, they have to punt. If I were watching this in 2006, I’d be sure USC wins this one.

Jackson mentions that the day after the game, you can download the game from iTunes on your computer or iPod. I’m feeling wistful for the mid-aughts.

Bush and White are currently carving up the Texas front seven so much it seems unfair that a team could have dual running backs this proficient. It’s almost like one of them was lured with payment.

Second Quarter

Ah, the second play of the quarter is a play I know well. It’s the dump off to Bush where he gets a bit greedy and attempts a lateral, fumbling after a huge gain. Texas ball. If Bush holds on to the ball there, USC likely goes up 14-0. Fouts mentions that’s only Bush’s second fumble of the season. It couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Man, VY is playing a video game. His running style is more galloping gazelle than anything—he takes off and seemingly takes three or four strides before he has a first down, completely untouched. He hits Thomas twice in a row, the second one resulting in a first after the big TE stretches and dives for the line to gain. I haven’t seen this at all from Texas since I’ve been covering the Longhorns—a quarterback relying on a tight end like that.

Ramonce Taylor is in, a player I don’t know. Turns out, after some research, that he had quite an interesting career. While never making it to the NFL, he played for two separate arena football teams in the Rio Grande Valley—the Magic and the Dorados—and two Canadian Football League teams. Sounds like Taylor is a perfect subject for a Late to the Game column of his own. But I digress. Vince is lights-out right now, 7-for-7 passing, and unstoppable with his legs. He scrambles for another first down on a designed draw. Heisman recount? Taylor looks a bit shaky; after a fumble, Fouts mentions that Texas has fumbled 33 times so far this season! Good grief.

Texas kicker Pino hits a 46-yard FG and Texas is on the board. USC leads 7-3. Isn’t this game supposed to be a shootout? Right on cue, Jackson mentions that these teams both averaged over 50 points for game during the regular season.

Steve Smith catches another one just before it hits the ground. Smith was one of my favorite players in the NFL for a bit, an underrated, sure-handed possession receiver for the Giants from 2007-10. The other future Giant draft pick, Terrell Thomas, is on USC, but I haven’t seen anything from him yet.

Leinart drops back again, and man, are his mechanics ugly. It’s probably why he dropped in the following year’s draft and never succeeded in the NFL. Michael Griffin intercepts one of his pop-fly passes in the end zone, making a spectacular grab and managing to keep a foot in. Dang. The ref, while reviewing the play, drops the hammer, saying, “there is indisputable video evidence,” that Griffin’s foot was in. Emphasis his! That was Leinart’s only interception in three career college bowls so far.

VY is on fire, hitting Sweed on the run, and Texas is running a no-huddle. Another one to Thomas, who is a beast! It takes half of USC to take him down. If Texas can develop a proficient tight end—I know you’re reading, Peyton Aucoin—whichever quarterback grabs the reins this season will have a nice safety blanket like Young has. As I’m writing this, he hits Thomas again! After a beautiful ping-pong run from Charles, Vince Young rips off one and laterals too, just like Bush, except it works this time, for a Selvin Young touchdown! Looks like his knee is down though.

Wait, they aren’t reviewing it? Pino quick-kicks the extra point, missing wide right. I am confused. That shouldn’t have been a touchdown. Texas got away with one. 9-7 Longhorns.

After a three-and-out by USC, Aaron Ross again fields a punt in traffic, but this time holds on to the ball, and just like that, the Horns are at midfield. Vince is dancing around on the sidelines. He’s feeling this. He’s loose. His first pass of the series, a sidearm bomb to someone named Billy Pittman falls incomplete, but it just looks so effortless for VY. It’s like he’s the big kid in Little League, the 12-year-old throwing heat past third-graders. It’s unfair.

Ramonce Taylor takes the handoff from Young and sprints 30 yards for a Texas TD. My oh my, has the momentum shifted. Pino’s extra point splits the uprights, and Texas leads 16-7. If I were watching this game live, my jaw would be on the ground. Since I know Texas wins—SPOILER ALERT—it seems normal. But the way the media was pumping USC, I thought this game would be 45-0 Trojans—at halftime.

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The broadcast cuts to future USC head coach Lane Kiffin, who the announcers mention recently replaced former OC Norm Chow, an underrated football name. Look how young Kiffin is! He doesn’t know that USC is going to fire him at an airport in seven years.

Leinart throws another terrible rainbow bomb off his back foot that is almost intercepted by a Texas linebacker. Jackson and Fouts seem to think that if the play were reviewed, the interception would stand. “Another phantom call,” Fouts says. Bush is starting to turn it on at this point, reminding me how fun he used to be, and the potential he had to be great in the NFL. Leinart looks lost. At least he had fun at USC.

The broadcast cuts to Steve Sarkisian, another future HC at USC. Man, Kiffin and Sarkisian are on top of the world in this moment, not prescient enough to see just how wrong it’ll go for them in Los Angeles.

Frank Okam picks up his first sack of the season, and the Rose Bowl is rocking as the Texas fans among the contingency are screaming DEFENSE! The chant works; Leinart is sacked again. Tip for Texas fans: Chant SCORE POINTS! in DKR next season for maximum offensive results.

USC kicks a field goal from 43-yards out, and it’s 16-10 Texas with :02 left in the half. Texas is smart to have deferred possession to the second half. The fun part is coming up. Jackson talks about a “wallop that Leinart took that may have put him off balance.” Pre-concussion awareness, ladies and gentlemen!

Hey Pete, how’d ya feel about the first half?


Come back tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion to my report about a game from 10 years ago.

Photo illustration by Melissa Reese.


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