Viva Las Vegas!
USC's football team is thousands of miles and more than a year removed from last year's postseason debacle in the Nevada desert, but Trojan coaches and players say the memory remains as fresh as the Sunshine State orange juice they've been guzzling all week.
Were it not for their embarrassing loss to Utah in the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl, the fifth-ranked Trojans insist they would not be playing third-ranked Iowa tonight in the Orange Bowl at Pro Player Stadium.
"That game, that whole thing, started this thing off," USC Coach Pete Carroll said.
From the minute the Trojans entered the Las Vegas locker room after the embarrassing 10-6 defeat, Carroll pointed returning players toward this season.
The Trojans would be playing the toughest schedule in college football. They needed to toughen up.
"The best thing that could have happened to us -- I hate to say it -- was losing that bowl game, because it kept guys hungry," senior cornerback Darrell Rideaux said.
After enduring the most strenuous off-season conditioning program in school history, USC finished 10-2 and earned its first bowl championship series game appearance.
The Trojans, who have a seven-game winning streak, played six teams currently ranked in the top 25 and 11 that earned bowl berths.
Iowa (11-1), winner of a school-record nine games in a row, is the highest ranked opponent that USC has faced. The Trojans are glad the best was saved for last.
"This is a great way to end it," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "This is a chance to show everyone how far we've come."
Iowa also made strides under Coach Kirk Ferentz, who went 1-10, 3-9 and 7-5 in his first three seasons with the Hawkeyes. Iowa lost to Iowa State, 36-31, in a nonconference game Sept. 14, but went on to win a share of the Big Ten Conference title for the first time since 1990. Iowa did not play unbeaten Ohio State during conference play.
Iowa averages 38.9 points and 432.9 yards a game. The Trojans surrender 18.6 and 281.8.
Quarterback Brad Banks, one of 12 Florida natives on the Hawkeye roster, started for the first time this season and finished second to Palmer in Heisman Trophy balloting. The elusive Banks leads the nation in passing efficiency and, possibly, headaches inflicted upon defensive coordinators.
USC faced similarly mobile quarterbacks when it played against Kansas State's Ell Roberson and Washington State's Jason Gesser. The Trojans lost both games.
"The most difficult part of controlling any offense is a running quarterback," Carroll said. "We had a hard time with them. It's not a great omen for us."
Iowa running back Fred Russell has gained 1,219 yards running behind a tall offensive line that features All-American left guard Eric Steinbach. All-American tight end Dallas Clark is an outstanding receiver and blocker.
"They're quick off the ball, very athletic and they know how to stick to defenders with blocks and make gigantic holes for the running backs," USC linebacker Melvin Simmons said.
Said free safety DeShaun Hill: "They're not a team that does anything risky. They just do what they do well play after play."
Palmer, who has passed for 3,639 yards and 32 touchdowns, leads a pass-oriented offense that averages 35.6 points and 440.8 yards a game.
The Trojan offensive line and tailback Justin Fargas will go against an Iowa front seven that helps the Hawkeyes rank second nationally in rushing defense at 68.2 yards a game. Iowa gives up an average of 270.9 passing yards.
"Our biggest challenge is to control the ball enough where [USC is] not just out there taking the thing and keeping it one-sided," Ferentz said.
Iowa appears to hold a clear edge in special teams with kicker Nate Kaeding -- the Lou Groza Award winner -- and kick-return and coverage units that ranked among the best in the Big Ten. USC's coverage units struggled throughout the season.
USC completed its regular season Nov. 30. Iowa has not played since Nov. 16, but Ferentz said the almost seven-week break would not adversely affect the Hawkeyes once they take the field tonight.
"Any time you play in a bowl game, you have a delay -- and a delay is a delay," Ferentz said. "You have to have a plan to deal with that. I feel good about our plan."
USC is confident that it can pick up where it left off when it routed UCLA and Notre Dame in consecutive games.
Defensive end Omar Nazel said the Trojans are positioned for a victorious finish to a journey that began with their Las Vegas Bowl defeat.
"We knew what type of season we were going up against," he said. "We trained super hard and -- boom -- here we are."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
AT A GLANCE
Line: USC by 6.
Series record: USC leads, 6-2.
Last meeting: 1976, USC 55-0.
Bowl records: USC 25-15; Iowa 9-7-1.
Last bowl appearance: USC lost to Utah, 10-6, in the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl; Iowa beat Texas Tech, 19-16, in the 2001 Alamo Bowl.
Common opponents this season: None.
Coaches: Pete Carroll, second season at USC (16-8); Kirk Ferentz, fourth season at Iowa (22-25), overall (34-46).
What to look for: The quarterback matchup of Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer of USC and Heisman runner-up Brad Banks of Iowa. Pac-10 vs. Big Ten. Two teams ranked in the top five. Two high-scoring offenses vs. stingy defenses.