Under a blizzard of silver confetti, in what had become a mosh pit on the field at the Rose Bowl on Wednesday night, arguably the greatest athlete in the world seemed overwhelmed by the moment. "Unbelievable," Lance Armstrong, clad in a burnt-orange T-shirt repeated, over and over. "This is just unbelievable." Or was it? When a player is as transcendent, as ridiculously dominant as Texas quarterback Vince Young was against the USC Trojans, and when a Pete Carroll—coached defense is made to look like so many cardinal-and-gold pylons, the Longhorns' breathtaking 41–38 victory is easily believable. What strained credulity was that with 6:42 left and USC leading by 12 points, the clearly outplayed Trojans might actually win.
But as Longhorns right tackle Justin Blalock said while celebrating on the field, not far from where Armstrong posed for pictures with a gaggle of Texas cheerleaders, "We kept our poise, put the ball in Vince's hands and let the man do what he does."
All Young did was outplay a pair of Heisman Trophy winners, amassing 467 yards of total offense. He completed 30 of 40 passes for 267 yards and ran 19 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns. His last carry, on fourth-and-five from the USC eight-yard line with 19 seconds to play, went for the touchdown that clinched the Longhorns' first national title in 35 years. It also terminated the two-time defending champion Trojans' winning streak at 34 games, extending Texas's to 20, and left a loquacious man at a temporary loss for words. "I've been planning this speech for 33 years," coach Mack Brown told his players in the winners' locker room, "but right now I don't really know what to say."
Hoisting the crystal national championship trophy was sweet vindication for Brown, whose charm and kind nature had become, in an odd way, a curse. He has long been one of the best, if not (sorry, Pete) the best recruiter in college football. But the more blue-chippers he raked in, the more it drew attention to the fact that in eight years at Texas, he'd never won even a Big 12 title. Critics sniped that he was better in the living rooms of high school seniors than on the sidelines in big games. He was dubbed Coach February.
Brown had no way of knowing it at the time, but his fortunes changed in 2002—on the day he sold Young, then a senior at Houston's Madison High, on the Longhorns. Parade magazine's national high school offensive player of the year, Young was a scintillating runner and a strong-armed passer despite an awkward throwing motion, and he played his best when the stakes were highest. Upon arriving in Austin in the summer of '02, Young was still a raw talent who had much to learn from Brown and was, in fact, red-shirted. But make no mistake, Texas won its fourth national title on Wednesday night because Brown's relationship with his star quarterback had become a two-way street: The teacher learned a thing or two from his student as well.
The Gatorade in his hair was nearly dry a half hour after the game when Brown remarked, as much to himself as anyone, "It's a long way from Dallas." Five straight losses to Oklahoma from 2000 through '04, all in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, overshadowed otherwise excellent Texas seasons and threatened to define Brown's career. Each of those defeats was marked by a discernible tightness passed from the coaches to the players, a fear of failure. Young's career as a Longhorn can be viewed in part as a battle to overcome this constrictive atmosphere—a battle he officially won last season, when Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis gave up trying to fix his three-quarter throwing motion and attempting to transform him into a sprint-out, bootleg quarterback. They gave Young more latitude away from the field as well, signing off on his request to liven up the locker room and practices with song and dance—and we're not talking Lawrence Welk. Young even got Brown, 54, to loosen up by exposing him to the world of hip-hop, earning the coach a nickname from the team's beat writers: Snoop Mack.
Still, heading into the Rose Bowl, the big question was, Which Young would show up? The brooding passer who in the regular-season finale against Texas A&M was pressing in the face of a surprisingly stiff challenge? The Heisman runner-up with the chip on his shoulder, who voiced his displeasure over not winning the trophy moments after Reggie Bush's name was called? Or the fist-knocking, loose-limbed team leader whose dazzling physical skills are matched by his toughness and strength of will?
The answer came during pregame warmups, as Brown grooved to the beat of Justin Timberlake's Rock Your Body. The guy could not have been less tense. Even after the Trojans turned a fumble by Longhorns punt returner Aaron Ross into an early 7–0 lead, Texas had no reason to panic. Though they were scoreless on their first three possessions, the Longhorns were moving the ball. Then, on USC's first possession of the second quarter, the game turned dramatically. At the end of a 37-yard catch and run, Bush attempted an ill-advised lateral as he was about to be tackled inside the Texas 20. The ball missed its target and was recovered by the Longhorns. Texas turned that goof into a field goal and proceeded to dominate the rest of the first half. Taking advantage of USC's utter befuddlement in the face of the Longhorns' zone-read option offense, Young effortlessly completed short and intermediate passes to his underneath receivers behind superb protection, leading Texas on two touchdown drives. Just before intermission Mario Danelo kicked a 43-yard field goal to pull USC to 16–10, but the Trojans knew they had a game on their hands; the Longhorns were nothing like the 2004 Oklahoma Sooners, who had rolled over before halftime in last year's 55–19 Orange Bowl rout.
In truth the signs had been good for Texas ever since the team arrived in Los Angeles on Dec. 28. "I've heard about the Vince Vibe," USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson said. "He's got those guys really playing for him." The Vibe was strong last week. Young was relaxed, funny, in the moment. He even played the diplomat, walking over to a group of USC players and breaking the ice at Disneyland, where the teams had been milling about in separate areas before being set loose in the park. And he was a goodwill ambassador, declaring at points throughout the week his love for Brown, Davis, his teammates, the Rose Bowl committee and the weather—this before Old Testament–like rain lashed floats and filled flugelhorns in the 117th Rose Parade.
While 2004 Heisman winner Matt Leinart may have enjoyed a reputation as the better passer going into the game—he would complete 29 of 40 passes for 365 yards—Young was far and away the most effective leader of the two. This was the guy who in August, along with junior tailback Selvin Young, studied videotape of preseason practices and the next day got in the face of any teammate who hadn't been pulling his weight. Vince is also the guy who in the huddle at Missouri in October, with the Longhorns facing third-and-30 at their 33 in a 21–13 game, told his linemen, "All I need is enough time to make three or four sandwiches." (After biding his time in the pocket for a while, Young scrambled 34 yards for a first down.) Cracking a joke, or inspiring, cajoling and bullying teammates comes easily. "It's pretty much my calling," he explained. "You accept [that calling], or you get smacked in the face by the Man upstairs."
While USC was uniformly respectful of the Longhorns in the run-up to the Rose Bowl, some Trojans had been annoyed by the bravado emanating from Austin. For those who weren't, the USC coaches left clippings of stories containing the remarks on a table in the lounge of the football office, including a New York Post article whose headline was a Young quote: WE'LL BEAT USC. Young had turned in a particularly memorable performance at a Dec. 5 press conference, first lobbying for the Heisman, then announcing that should he fail to win it, he would be motivated to "show the world they made the wrong decision." Asked if he would be intimidated by USC, Young laughed, then replied, "Intimidated by what?" A moment later he noted that the Trojans "haven't seen the different guys on our team who are gangster." So compelling did Carroll find these comments that he arranged for snippets from the press conference to be shown during a team meeting.
Most USC players were perplexed rather than angered by the gangster remark. If they had known him better, they would have realized that it was just Vince being Vince—following his calling, reminding his teammates that they had nothing to fear, that they belonged in the national championship game. The difference between the '05 Longhorns and the '04 Sooners, he said, was that Oklahoma quarterback Jason White had failed to "keep the guys going." While White had allowed the Sooners to surrender, Young implied, he would keep Texas in the game by the force of his will.
And the fleetness of his feet. On reconstructed knees, White was as mobile as R2D2; a dazzling double threat, Young was aptly described by Carroll as "Randall Cunningham, only faster."
After the game on Wednesday night Carroll said that he had never coached against a player as totally commanding as Young had been. "He probably made us miss a dozen tackles tonight," Carroll said. In truth, that estimate seemed low by at least a dozen.
Six days before the game USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin sat in one of the team's conference rooms, where the names, heights and weights of Texas's defensive starters were printed on a marker board. "Look at their secondary," he marveled. "They go 205, 205, 205, 200. It's amazing how alike they are, and they can all flat-out run." Then he made a prediction: "By the time these 11 guys are done [with college], I bet nine of them will be in the NFL."
The most talented player in that elite group is senior safety Michael Huff, a former All–Big 12 sprinter who started 49 of 50 games in his four seasons and scored five touchdowns, four on interceptions, one on a fumble return. Co–defensive coordinator Duane Akina has described him as the smartest, most instinctive player he has ever coached. One of the worst-kept secrets of the week was that Huff, the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's top defensive back, would bear primary responsibility for containing Bush. It was almost eerie, how at peace Huff appeared to be with that matchup, how much he seemingly—could this be possible?—looked forward to it. Asked if anyone on the Longhorns' roster could keep up with number 5, he replied, "Yeah. Me."
Save for a spectacular 26-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run on which he dived into the end zone, Bush took a backseat to LenDale White, whose thunderous inside runs (he rushed for 124 yards and three touchdowns), coupled with Leinart's precision passing, got the Trojans back into the game. In the second half USC ran off 28 points and never punted. But on fourth-and-one at the Texas 45 with 2:13 left, Carroll opted to go for it. Gain one yard, win the game. "We just blitzed everyone," Huff, who helped stuff White inches shy, said later. Young would have one final chance.
After he moved the Longhorns 48 yards in nine plays, the 2005 college football season came down to a single snap. Out of the shotgun Young looked to pass. "I went all the way through my progression," he recalled later, "but there was nobody open." Linebacker Collin Ashton and corner Josh Pinkard blitzed, but they were picked up by the Texas front, which didn't allow a sack all night. "The defensive lineman was giving me the edge"—that was Frostee Rucker, who dived vainly at Young's ankles—"so I took it down."
Young took the ball down, then he took the Trojans down.
Leaving the press conference as a losing coach for the first time since Sept. 27, 2003, Carroll smiled and asked, "What are you gonna do?"
Disappearing down the corridor, he flashed USC's familiar two-fingered salute. It is intended to symbolize V, for victory. On this night, the V stood for something else.