Coming up with a list of the top 7 moments to feature this week in college football was brutally difficult. Some of these are a series of games, others a specific national championship, and others are an unlikely or inspirational run to a national title. For the most part, I refined this list to postseason moments, or games that decided a national championship, simply because with such an overwhelming list of possible options to feature, I decided that the ones with the biggest impact would be the ones that had championship implications.
If you’ve been on our website, you had to know this was coming. The #1 moment in our NCAA football moments countdown is the 2006 Rose Bowl, an absolute thriller played between the Texas Longhorns and USC Trojans for the national championship – a game whose defining moment was captured in one of the most iconic football photos ever. From the storylines leading into the game, the star performances and epic duel between two football powerhouses, this was an easy choice for the #1 moment on our countdown.
The 2005 USC Trojans entered the year looking to repeat, or three-peat if you ask them, as national champions, a feat never accomplished in the AP Poll Era. Their rise to the top of college football had come suddenly, as from 1996-2001, the Trojans compiled a 37-35 record, never finishing with more than 8 wins and never finishing a season ranked. Then in 2002, under second-year head coach Pete Carroll, USC went 11-2 with an Orange Bowl win. They improved on that in each of the following years, finishing ‘03 and ‘04 with 12-1 and 13-0 records, respectively. They won the 2003 AP National Championship, although LSU was named the BCS champion, leading to a split title. They won the sole championship in 2004. They were led into battle in 2005 by 2004 Heisman winner and quarterback Matt Leinart, along with the eventual 2005 Heisman winner, running back Reggie Bush.
The Trojans were an absolute force in 2005, as not a single team could contain their offense. USC put up 63, 70, and 45 points in their first three games. #14 Arizona State kept them under 40 points, but the Trojans still won 38-28. Their first real test came in a rivalry game at #9 Notre Dame. USC was 5-0 but trailed at halftime, and trailed 31-28 with seven seconds left at the Notre Dame 1-yard line. Rather than attempt the field goal, USC called for a quarterback sneak, and after Leinart’s initial effort was stopped, Bush executed what became known as “The Bush Push”, driving Leinart over the goal line. USC won their final six games with relative ease, with only one opponent coming within 25 points of them. #16 Fresno State led 21-13 at halftime, but USC put up 28 points in the third quarter, and got a last-minute interception to seal a 50-42 win. They punctuated the year with a 66-19 rivalry win over UCLA, sealing another berth in the BCS Championship.
Texas hadn’t exactly been a nobody in the college football world, and they had long been a more consistent program than USC. Under head coach Mack Brown, the Longhorns had finished seven consecutive seasons ranked, including three in the Top 6, and in 2004, they had pulled off a Rose Bowl win to finish the season #5. However, Texas had not won a national championship since 1970, and they were fighting to get back to the top of the mountain. After an easy win in the opener, the Longhorns had an immediate road test against #4 Ohio State. Texas trailed 22-16 in the fourth quarter, but quarterback Vince Young tossed a touchdown pass late, and the Longhorns added a safety to win the highly anticipated battle by three points. After that, it was smooth sailing for Texas, as no other opponent came closer than eleven points. They didn’t score under 40 points, and they dismantled #24 Colorado twice, and crushed #10 Texas Tech en route to an undefeated regular season, setting up a big-time national championship game.
The Rose Bowl was a clash of the two teams with the longest active winning streaks – USC with 34 and Texas with 19, and it also featured the top two finishers in the Heisman race, with Reggie Bush edging Vince Young out for the award. To start the game, USC did not gain a first down, but Texas fumbled the ensuing punt, giving USC’s lethal offense a short field, which they quickly converted into a touchdown, leading 7-0 into the second quarter. Texas took advantage of a USC turnover, and Young led a 53-yard drive which culminated in a field goal. USC’s next drive ended in the red zone with a Leinart interception, and the Longhorns capitalized once more. Young powered the drive with his arm and with his legs, finishing it off by sprinting ten yards and tossing a lateral to Selvin Young who polished off the final twelve yards for a touchdown for a 9-7 lead after a failed extra point. The Longhorns extended the lead to 16-7, but USC cut it to 16-10 at halftime.
The offenses exploded to start the second half, as running back LenDale White punched in a score for the Trojans, Young responded with the first of his three rushing touchdowns, and USC fired right back as White converted a 4th and 1 on a 12-yard touchdown run. After the fireworks, the score stood at 24-23, and Texas missed a go-ahead field goal, keeping them down by one entering the final stanza.
Things looked bleak for Texas, as USC continued to dominate the second half through the first half of the fourth quarter. After Texas’s missed field goal, USC drove 80 yards, with some superb passing from Leinart and a 26-yard touchdown rush by Reggie Bush. Texas was able to get into the red zone on their ensuing drive, but the Trojans stiffened at the last second, holding the Longhorns to a field goal. USC needed very little time to respond as Leinart and fullback David Kirtman connected for 33 yards, and then 15 more were added to the total on a roughing the passer penalty. Leinart executed a toss to receiver Dwayne Jarrett so swept through the defense for a 22-yard touchdown, and USC opened up a commanding 38-26 lead with just 6:42 to play in the game.
Texas wasn’t down and out yet, as Vince Young threw the Longhorns on his back and personally accounted for 69 yards in just 2:39. He completed five passes for 44 yards and ran for the remaining 25, including 17 yards for a touchdown to bring Texas within five with 3:58 to play. After yielding one first down, Texas needed a stop to leave any kind of time remaining for their offense to work some magic. They got a third-down stop, forcing USC into a 4th and 2 just past midfield with 2:13 to play. Pete Carroll decided to put the game in the hands of his trusty offense rather than punt and rely on a defense that had struggled to stop Vince Young and the Longhorns. He called for a LenDale White run, but Texas stiffened and stuffed him for just a yard, allowing Texas to take over at their own 44-yard line.
Texas still needed a touchdown, and they were forced into a few unsavory positions on their final drive. They lost two yards on their first two plays and were immediately confronted with a 3rd and 12. However a short completion and facemask penalty extended the drive for the Longhorns. Young then rushed for seven yards and found rarely-used receiver Brian Carter twice for 26 yards, pushing Texas to the USC 14-yard line. However, the Longhorns gained just five yards in three plays, and they faced a do-or-die 4th and 5 from the 9-yard line. Young dropped back but couldn’t find an open receiver. He scrambled and found space to his right, bolting for the corner of the end zone. Receiving a critical block from Justin Blalock, Young won a footrace into the corner of the endzone for a 39-38 Texas lead. A successful 2-point conversion gave the Longhorns a 3-point advantage.
Leinart had just 16 seconds and no timeouts to work his magic for USC, and although he got the Trojans to the Texas 43, there was simply not enough time, and Texas snapped USC’s lengthy winning streak and handed Leinart just the second loss of his collegiate career.
Vince Young was named the Rose Bowl MVP for the 2nd consecutive year, and he also received the Manning Award, given to the nation’s top quarterback and the only award based partly on bowl results. In the game, Young put up a Rose-Bowl record 467 all-purpose yards, collecting 200 on the ground and 267 more through the air while running for three touchdowns. Had USC won, Leinart (365 pass yards and a touchdown) or LenDale White (3 touchdowns) would have been prime MVP candidates.
Bush, Young, Texas’s Michael Huff, and Leinart all were top-10 picks in the 2006 NFL Draft, with Bush and Young being selected second and third overall. USC ended up vacating their 2004 national championship and their 2005 wins, as Reggie Bush was found to be ineligible after accepting thousands of dollars worth of gifts from a few California agents. Bush also voluntarily forfeited his Heisman trophy. Although USC’s winning streak was virtually destroyed by this, and their official 2005 record was 0-1, the Rose Bowl versus Texas still remains one of the most iconic games of all times, with Vince Young’s performance and game-winning touchdown serving as one of the best individual efforts in college football history.