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Carroll saves his best coaching job ... for his last USC game?

He ran toward the end zone, soaking wet in the January night, shivering with laughter.

He suddenly stopped, turned and sprinted back toward his players, leaping and pounding on their shoulder pads, ordering them to join him.

Then, together, they ran back to the end zone, stuck up their padded and bloodied hands, and danced with the band.

In the middle of all this, Pete Carroll spotted this reporter, howled, and flung a wet towel at me.

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This wasn’t a victory celebration, it was a fraternity party, and once again, the USC coach was the coolest guy on the row.

“Wasn’t this fun?” Carroll exclaimed, again and again. “I mean, wasn’t this a blast?”

It was all of that. It was more than that.

USC’s 32-18 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan Monday was the most jangling, jitterbugging, joyous win of the Carroll era.

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It was jumping jacks and one-armed catches and Booty shaking and D.J. spinning. It was sacks and thwacks and Heisman hallelujahs.

“This was awesome,” said Matt Leinart, watching from the sidelines. “This was unbelievable.”

But more than anything else, this day of cardinal-and-gold giants was about the scrawny coach who made them that way.

This was, once again, about Pete Carroll. He has never coached better. He’s never entertained more. With all due respect to national championships and Notre Dame, this was the most shining moment of his six-year USC career, because this was the one moment many thought could not happen.

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By the time the Trojans had scored on their fifth consecutive second-half possession against the nation’s seventh-ranked defense, with the crowd roaring into the setting sun, his accomplishment was clear.

In one month, Carroll had turned complete doubt into utter domination.

In one month, he had taken a team that couldn’t beat unranked UCLA and turned it into a team that could beat anyone.

Said Michigan’s LaMarr Woodley: “I would love to watch USC play Ohio State for the national championship.”

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And if they did?

Said Michigan’s Mike Hart: “I think USC is a lot better than Ohio State, at least defensively.”

The way the Trojans played Monday, steamrollering the Wolverines in ways that the Buckeyes could not, they can spend the summer knowing they were probably just two tipped passes from a national title.

“It was important for us to reconnect with who we are and what our program is all about,” said Carroll.

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Reconnection made. Statement completed. Farewell issued? If Carroll is indeed headed for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, as some suspect, credit him with throwing a heck of a goodbye party.

“I’m here, I’m back, I have no plans to leave,” he said.

Yeah, just like the Cardinals didn’t publicly plan to fire Denny Green, but it happened Monday anyway.

Here’s guessing that the Cardinals front office will get involved, just like every other NFL front office with a head coaching opening will be getting involved.

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At some point, if handed an ownership percentage of a team, Carroll will listen.

With the young Trojans in preseason-No. 1 shape, and the NCAA still out there asking questions about Reggie Bush, Carroll might think it’s time.

If Carroll does leave, Trojan nation should thank him for returning them to national prominence, wish him well in conquering his NFL demons, and stick in a tape of Monday’s game to celebrate his legacy.

“This is what Coach Carroll does so well,” said offensive tackle Sam Baker. “He gets us to trust him, then trust ourselves.”

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Start with the sideline jumping jacks. After playing to a dreary 3-3 tie in the first half, the Trojans on the bench seemingly lost their minds in the third quarter when they began doing constant jumping jacks. Turns out, their personal trainer was Carroll, who screamed at them for more energy.

“I felt like we had become a little too cool or something on the sidelines,” Carroll said.

Cool became heat, and Michigan became toast.

Soon, routine tackles were celebrated with chest-bumping dances. Soon, when it came to tackling Trojans, Carroll was doing a better job than Michigan.

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“The energy out there was incredible,” said Lawrence Jackson. “It lifted all of us up.”

Interception. Touchdown. Michigan punt. Touchdown. Fumble recovery. Field goal.

Finally, in the fourth quarter, with USC leading by two touchdowns, John David Booty led an 85-yard scoring drive that was the masterpiece of the season, a drive consisting entirely of four perfect passes and four incredible catches, including Fred Davis’ one-handed grab.

Carroll was doing double axels. Dwayne Jarrett was dancing like the Scarecrow. The game ended, and the stats were startling.

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An offensive line that was demoralized and dominated by UCLA allowed one sack.

A team rattled by the immensity of the UCLA game committed just three penalties.

A quarterback who has often struggled to make the big play made every big play, Booty finally maximizing his veteran receivers with 391 yards passing, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Every wrong from this season, righted in its final three hours.

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“We owned the night,” said Carroll, who danced off into it with his indomitable team and unforgettable smile, the best of times, maybe for the last time.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke


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