In '04, USC nearly turned blue over orange

Times Staff Writer

Something felt wrong to Pete Carroll, but he wasn't sure.

At a team meeting on the eve of USC's game against UCLA two years ago, the Trojans coach cleared the auditorium at Heritage Hall of everyone but his players.

"Shut the doors," Carroll said.

USC was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation. A date with No. 2 Oklahoma awaited at the Orange Bowl in Miami if the heavily favored Trojans got past UCLA in the regular-season finale at the Rose Bowl.

But Carroll had a sense of foreboding throughout the week. The sounds in the meetings and on the field were just ... different. Film of the practices told the same tale.

"Tell me the truth," Carroll pointedly asked his players. "What do you really think of [UCLA]?"

Two years later, Carroll does not have to ask that question.

The Trojans' narrow victory over the Bruins two years ago was enough to throw a scare into a program that is once again on the verge of playing for a national championship.

If second-ranked USC beats the Bruins for the eighth consecutive time, the Trojans will play top-ranked Ohio State in the Bowl Championship Series title game at Glendale, Ariz.

"I think we learned from that game a couple years ago," senior offensive tackle Kyle Williams said. "I don't think Coach is going to let that happen again."

Carroll still shakes his head when asked about the run-up to the 2004 game, a 29-24 USC victory that was not decided until the final minute. Earlier this week, Carroll told reporters that schedule changes and distractions in the week before finals had thrown his team off two years ago.

But current and former players said exams had nothing to do with it.

"We were thinking about playing in the Orange Bowl already," former running back LenDale White said Thursday.

It was the mercurial White, never shy about expressing an opinion, who stood up and answered Carroll's question in the 2004 closed-door team meeting.

What did White think of UCLA?

"They're garbage!" he pronounced.

Said junior nose tackle Sedrick Ellis: "That was LenDale. ... He felt he could whup anybody's [rear end]."

White, apparently, was not alone.

Running back Reggie Bush echoed some of White's sentiments, but noted that something was amiss with the Trojans.

"We just kind of slacked off a little bit," former safety Darnell Bing recalled.

Williams, a reserve at the time, said the Trojans were emotionally drained from the previous week's victory over Notre Dame, a game in which quarterback Matt Leinart clinched the Heisman Trophy.

"Guys wanted to get to the next game, they wanted to get down [to Miami]. That was really it," he said.

Carroll would have none of it. He bit into his players about overlooking the Bruins.

"People have this misconception that Coach Carroll's just this fun-loving guy," said former offensive lineman John Drake, chuckling at the memory. "But he was all business. He said, 'Don't fool yourself thinking the battle is already done and you haven't even played the game!'

"It was kind of shocking. Like, 'Where did that come from?' "

The next day, when the game began, Carroll's worst fears proved true.

USC jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but UCLA returned a punt for a touchdown. The Bruins were within 17-10 when officials made a controversial call, whistling a play dead and ruling that Bush did not fumble after a three-yard reception.

The Bruins eventually cut the deficit to 23-17.

"It was one of those games where the whole game you're thinking, 'We're killing them,' " former linebacker Collin Ashton recalled. "And then you look up at the scoreboard and say, 'What the ... hell?' "

USC eventually won with the help of a career-best five field goals from Ryan Killeen.

"With Reggie, Matt and LenDale, I didn't think I would be kicking that much," Killeen recalled. "But I kept hearing, 'Field goal! Field goal! Field goal!' "

USC secured the win when cornerback Kevin Arbet recovered a fumble by Jason Leach, who had intercepted a pass with less than a minute left.

"We were one of the top teams ever and it didn't really matter to UCLA," Drake said.

Carroll has said throughout this week that his team appeared sharp and on task. He does not foresee the need for another meeting like the one in 2004.

"I don't think we're going to have any problem at all," he said. "They've been so compliant in following everything to the letter that I would be really surprised.

"This is not a group that has a big opinion about what's going on or where we are. They just kind of do whatever we tell them to."

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