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The Subject Is Oranges

Times Staff Writer

Oranges rained down onto the field from the Rose Bowl stands Saturday as USC players and coaches ran from one end zone to the other.

Along the way, Orange Bowl representatives stopped them momentarily and draped bowl championship series title game patches around their necks.

The pause allowed the top-ranked Trojans to breathe a collective sigh of relief after a 29-24 victory over rival UCLA in a game that was not decided until the final minute.

As they reveled in the postgame celebration, the Trojans said there was no doubt that they deserved the chance to play in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 4 for the national title.

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“I’m ready to fly out to the Orange Bowl right now,” said USC sophomore Reggie Bush, who rushed for 204 yards in 15 carries and scored on spectacular 65- and 81-yard runs in the first half.

Ryan Killeen added a school-record five field goals as USC finished 12-0 overall and 8-0 in the Pacific 10 Conference to complete its first perfect regular season since 1972.

Last year, USC ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in both major polls, but computers knocked the Trojans down to third in the final BCS standings and they were shut out of an opportunity to play for an outright national title.

Coach Pete Carroll, whose team started the season ranked No. 1, hopes there is no repeat when the final BCS standings are announced today.

“What more can we do?” asked Carroll, who has guided the Trojans to 21 consecutive victories. “It would be kind of nice if we get to go to the Orange Bowl, you know?

“After last year and after all that happened it would be kind of nice that we go to the Orange Bowl and get our shot to play in the darn thing.... We deserve it. We earned it.”

UCLA made sure of that.

A Bruin team that had three weeks to prepare gave the Trojans everything they could handle before 88,442 on a crisp, breezy afternoon in Pasadena.

UCLA sacked USC quarterback Matt Leinart three times, prevented him from throwing a touchdown pass for the first time in 25 starts and stopped the Trojans from converting 12 of their 13 third-down opportunities.

But USC limited UCLA to 17 yards rushing and linebacker Lofa Tatupu and safety Jason Leach intercepted Drew Olson passes in the fourth quarter to help preserve the victory and extend USC’s winning streak in the series to six games.

“We almost pulled it off,” said UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell, whose team finished 6-5 overall and 4-4 in the Pacific 10 Conference and is probably headed to the Insight Bowl. “The game wasn’t out of reach. We had the opportunity to do great things, but we came up short.”

USC’s five-point victory was a marked contrast to the last three games between the teams, when the Trojans routed the Bruins, 27-0, 52-21 and 47-22.

Leinart, who passed for 400 yards and five touchdowns last week against Notre Dame, said the Bruins proved to be a formidable opponent in the 74th meeting in the series.

“They hit us in the mouth a few times with some blitzes and some pressure, but I’m just proud of the way we played as a team,” said Leinart, who completed 24 of 34 passes for 242 yards. “They had some big plays and they had some momentum at times, but we just kept answering the call.”

USC was ahead, 10-0, in the first quarter on Bush’s 65-yard touchdown on the second play from scrimmage and Killeen’s 37-yard field goal.

UCLA’s Craig Bragg scored on a school-record 96-yard punt return to make it 10-7 with 9:51 left in the second quarter. The Bruins blocked a punt on the ensuing possession but could not capitalize when Justin Medlock missed a 39-yard field goal attempt.

Bush broke loose for his 81-yard touchdown to increase USC’s lead to 17-7, but Medlock answered with a 43-yard field goal to make it 17-10.

Desmond Reed’s 49-yard kickoff return to the UCLA 40 set the stage for a controversial call by the officials when they whistled the play dead and ruled Bush did not fumble after a three-yard reception. After the Bruins sacked Leinart, Killeen kicked a 42-yard field goal with nine seconds left in the half for a 20-10 lead.

The Bruins failed to capitalize on an opportunity when linebacker Justin London fumbled after intercepting a pass, but they stopped the Trojans and cut the deficit to 23-17 on the ensuing possession when running back Manuel White rumbled in for a nine-yard touchdown with 1:35 left in the third quarter.

Killeen’s 36-yard field goal with 12:09 remaining pushed the lead to nine points.

UCLA stopped running back LenDale White on fourth and one at the Bruin 17. Tatupu, however, intercepted an Olson pass intended for tight end Marcedes Lewis on second down, setting up Killeen’s 34-yard field goal for a 29-17 lead.

“We were telling everybody we have to get after the ball,” said Tatupu, who played despite a sternum injury and finished with a game-high 10 tackles. “We weren’t getting the turnovers we wanted.”

Olson, who completed 20 of 34 passes for 278 yards, made several big plays on the ensuing possession. His 20-yard pass to Lewis and 39-yard completion to Junior Taylor gave the Bruins a first down at the Trojan 12.

On fourth and two at the four, Olson connected with Lewis for a touchdown that made the score 29-24 with 2:20 left.

UCLA tried an on-side kick, but USC backup quarterback Matt Cassel caught the ball in the air.

“Before they kicked, Jason Leach said, ‘They’re going to kick it to you,’ ” said Cassel, a fifth-year senior. “It was probably the biggest play of my career.”

UCLA got one more opportunity when Bush lost a fumble with 53 seconds left at the Bruin 14. But Leach intercepted Olson’s pass to Bragg and he returned the ball six yards before fumbling. Cornerback Kevin Arbet recovered for USC with 39 seconds left and the Trojans ran out the clock.

“I tried to get the ball to Craig over the middle, but I got hit when I threw it,” Olson said. “I was trying to make some plays.”


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