PASADENA, Calif. – This year’s Rose Bowl was billed as a consolation prize for two teams that came up just short of playing for the National Championship.
Southern Cal won the prize. Michigan still needs consoling.
Nearly a month after Bowl Championship Series voters selected Florida to face No. 1 Ohio State in the BCS Championship game, the third-ranked Wolverines had a chance to prove they deserved another shot at the undefeated Buckeyes.
A chance to become just the second 12-win team in program history.
A chance to regain their position as the nation’s No. 2 team.
Michigan blew its chance.
On Monday, No. 8 Southern Cal embarrassed the Wolverines 32-18 in a game that was considerably more lopsided than the final score indicated.
Michigan couldn’t move the ball against the Trojans’ imposing defense – and couldn’t stop their explosive offense, either.
“(The Trojans are) a great team; they can score points, and the offense put the defense out there too many times,” co-captain Jake Long said. “That type of offense, with that many chances, you know they’re going to score points.”
For the Wolverines (7-1 Big Ten, 11-2 overall), it was a disappointing finish to an otherwise impressive season.
After racking up 11 straight wins to start the year, Michigan ended its season with back-to-back losses for the third year in a row.
The Wolverines have dropped their last four bowl games, including three Rose Bowls, and haven’t won The Granddaddy of Them All since the 1997 season.
In contrast to the loss to No. 1 Ohio State, in which only Michigan’s vaunted defense struggled, the Wolverines floundered on both sides of the ball against the Trojans.
“(Michigan is) a traditional straight up offense,” Southern Cal defensive end Lawrence Jackson said. “If they line up one way, if they’re in certain formations, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to pick out what they were going to do. Our coaches have been around for a long time and were able to exploit that.”
In the days leading up to the game, the Wolverines fielded countless questions about the Trojans’ defense and said they were ready for Southern Cal’s relentless pass rush and creative blitzing.
The game said otherwise.
Michigan’s offensive line struggled to protect quarterback Chad Henne (26-of-41 for 309 yards) and gave up six sacks, which cost the Wolverines 44 yards.
The Trojans’ swarming defensive performance on Monday was reminiscent of their standout day in the 2004 Rose Bowl, when they sacked Michigan quarterback John Navarre nine times in a 28-14 victory.
“(Southern Cal) just has a great way of bringing pressure, you know, uncanny styles of pressure,” Michigan right tackle Rueben Riley said. “You have unorthodox rushers such as (Brian) Cushing and Jackson . just doing a good job at what they do.”
And Michigan couldn’t stop them, especially in the first half. The Wolverines went into halftime with 76 yards of total offense, thanks in part to the Trojans’ five first-half sacks.
Michigan’s sluggish running game didn’t help.
Including yards lost due to sacks, the Big Ten’s top rushing offense amassed a meager 12 yards against Southern Cal. Tailback Mike Hart, the nation’s seventh-leading rusher, finished with 47 yards on 17 carries.
“I thought Henne made some big plays in the first half on third and long . to keep drives alive,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “But it’s just a matter of time when you can’t run the football against a team pressuring as well as (Southern Cal) that you end up (allowing) some sacks, and that’s what happened to us.”
The Wolverines found a little offensive rhythm in the second half – especially through the air – and finished the game with 321 total yards.
But that wasn’t enough to keep pace with the Trojans’ offensive fireworks.
Southern Cal (7-2 Pac-10, 11-2 overall) played it safe in the first half but came out swinging in the second. Trojan quarterback John David Booty threw four second-half touchdowns and finished with 391 yards on 27-for-45 passing.
Michigan’s vaunted defense couldn’t keep up.
“We just have too many weapons on offense,” Southern Cal receiver Dwayne Jarrett said. “We just have too many players that can get the ball, execute the plays (and) make the big plays when it’s on the line. Michigan, I don’t think they knew who to cover.”
After the Wolverines’ top-ranked run defense held the Trojans to 20 rushing yards in the first half, Southern Cal wisely abandoned the run in the third quarter, rushing just twice in the frame. Excluding two quarterback keepers, the Trojans passed 27 straight times in the second half.
Boasting a first-team All-America receiver in Jarrett, the Southern Cal offense exploited Michigan’s secondary. Jarrett finished with 11 receptions for 205 yards en route to earning Offensive Player of the Game honors.
Even cornerback Leon Hall, a fellow All-America selection, couldn’t stop Jarrett, who burned Hall for one of his two touchdowns.
The score came at a particularly heartbreaking point for the Wolverines. The momentum had shifted in Michigan’s favor after Henne found junior Adrian Arrington in the end zone to pull the Wolverines within eight at the start of the fourth quarter.
But Michigan’s defense couldn’t stop the Trojans aerial assault. Seven plays later, Booty found a streaking Jarrett to all but put the game away.
When Michigan did manage to contain Jarrett, Southern Cal simply turned to another member of its standout receiving corps. Senior Steve Smith grabbed seven catches for 108 yards and a touchdown.
“If (the secondary is) a weakness, why wouldn’t they focus on it?” linebacker Shawn Crable said. “I think once they realized they couldn’t run on us, they really resorted to the pass game, and it took us awhile to realize they were passing on every down.”
Even the Wolverines’ highly regarded front seven didn’t bounce back completely from its breakdown against Ohio State. Booty had plenty of time to throw, especially in the second half, and Michigan notched just one sack all game (senior co-captain LaMarr Woodley).
In a battle of two supposedly stout defenses, Southern Cal had the edge.
“The media does a great job of building people up, but we knew we were a great front seven,” Jackson said. “We missed a couple sacks today, so it could have been a lot worse. Our defense showed up to play, and we did outplay their defense and we’re happy about that. . We weren’t surprised at all about how this one turned out.”
The Wolverines couldn’t say the same.