It was a perfect way to end a perfect season.
USC players stood joyously atop a stage on the field at Pro Player Stadium on Tuesday night taking turns cradling the crystal football that is awarded to the bowl championship series champion.
They had showed the college football establishment that they had no equal. That they deserved to stand alone.
That was clear after top-ranked USC played its best game of the season and dominated No. 2 Oklahoma in all phases during a 55-19 rout in the Orange Bowl to complete a 13-0 season and win its 11th national championship.
“I think we proved tonight that we’re the No. 1 team in the country -- without a doubt,” said junior quarterback Matt Leinart, who set an Orange Bowl record by passing for five touchdowns in front of a crowd of 77,912.
USC took advantage of five Oklahoma turnovers -- including a game-turning fumble by punt returner Mark Bradley in the first quarter -- to become the first school since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995 to win consecutive national titles. The Trojans joined Florida State’s 1999 team as the only ones to start the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and maintain their ranking throughout.
The victory, USC’s 22nd in a row, also served as a coronation of sorts for a program that has arguably been the nation’s best in the last three seasons.
That it came so convincingly against the previously unbeaten Sooners, who were playing in the BCS title game for the third time in five years, surprised even Coach Pete Carroll.
“We wanted to see if we could make them look like everyone else,” said Carroll, who has guided the Trojans to a 36-3 record and three BCS bowl game victories in the last three seasons. “I was surprised it happened as quickly as it did.”
So was Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops, whose team also lost in last year’s BCS title game against Louisiana State.
“Nothing you can say outside that we just got whipped,” Stoops said.
In a star-studded game that featured two Heisman Trophy winners, four 2004 Heisman finalists and several future NFL first-round draft picks, all of the highlights belonged to the Trojans, who completed their first perfect season since 1972.
Leinart, possibly playing in his last USC game, proved there was no Heisman Trophy jinx, leading an offense that generated 525 yards and its largest point total of the season against a Sooner defense that was giving up 13.7 points a game.
Leinart completed 18 of 35 passes for 332 yards and threw three touchdown passes to Steve Smith and one each to split end Dwayne Jarrett and tight end Dominique Byrd.
“We thought we could get the ball downfield against them,” offensive coordinator Norm Chow said. “Matt was as sharp as a tack.”
Sophomore tailback LenDale White didn’t start, but he showed no ill effects from the high ankle sprain that prevented him from practicing during almost all of the bowl preparation. White gained 118 yards in 15 carries and scored two touchdowns. Reggie Bush added 75 yards in six carries.
Oklahoma’s offensive line went into the game with the accolades, but USC’s young line showed how far it has come.
“It was important to come out and make a name for ourselves,” said tackle Sam Baker, a redshirt freshman. “To do it in this fashion, to leave no doubt, that’s awesome.”
So was the play of USC’s defense, which shut down Sooner running back Adrian Peterson, the Heisman runner-up, and intercepted three passes by 2003 Heisman winner Jason White.
“We knew where he was going to throw it every time,” cornerback Eric Wright said.
Peterson finished with 82 yards in 25 carries. His longest gain covered nine yards. White completed 24 of 36 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns, but Wright, safety Jason Leach and linebacker Matt Grootegoed intercepted passes.
“The quarterback had a couple of big plays -- that was OK--we were not going to let Adrian Peterson run on us,” USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said.
The day before the game, Carroll called this the best team he has coached in his four seasons because the defense featured so many players with a nose for the ball.
The Trojans proved him right against the Sooners, forcing four first-half turnovers that resulted in 24 points en route to a 38-10 halftime lead.
After forcing the Trojans to punt on the game’s first possession, White drove the Sooners 92 yards in 12 plays and capped the drive with a five-yard touchdown pass to receiver Travis Wilson.
Leinart immediately answered, completing all five of his attempts during a 75-yard, six-play drive that ended with a spectacular 33-yard touchdown catch by Byrd to make the score 7-7.
USC stopped Oklahoma on the ensuing possession, but was forced to punt when it got the ball back.
That’s when the Sooners’ problems began.
USC punter Tom Malone kicked a ball that rolled inside the Oklahoma five-yard line where Bradley inexplicably tried to field it despite a swarm of USC players. Collin Ashton knocked the ball loose and Josh Pinkard recovered at the six.
“Just a bonehead mistake,” Bradley said. “I have to live with it.”
Said Stoops: “I was as shocked as everybody in the stadium.”
LenDale White wasted no time capitalizing, stretching across the goal line on a six-yard touchdown run with 17 seconds left in the first quarter for a 14-7 lead.
Less than three minutes later, Jason White threw a pass into coverage that Leach intercepted at the Trojan 11.
Six plays later, Leinart threw a pass deep along the left sideline to Jarrett for a 54-yard touchdown and a 21-7 lead.
But the Trojans were far from done.
Wright intercepted a pass with 10:06 left in the half and returned it to the Sooner 21. Leinart needed only three plays to turn that into touchdown on a five-yard pass to Smith to increase the lead to 28-7.
Garrett Hartley’s first career field goal pulled Oklahoma to 28-10, but Leinart erased any thoughts of a momentum change by tossing a 33-yard touchdown pass to Smith for a 35-10 lead.
Oklahoma remained charitable, though, when running back Kejuan Jones fumbled at the Sooner 35.
Grootegoed recovered to set up Killeen’s 44-yard field for a 38-10 halftime lead.
Smith and LenDale White scored touchdowns and Killeen kicked a 42-yard field goal to complete USC’s scoring.
Orgeron, who is leaving to coach Mississippi, said the Trojans have reached the pinnacle.
“This is the way to go out,” he said. “Four years ago, when Pete came in, we set out to get the job done. We did.”