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A Pair Of Takes: USC's Most Significant Win 2001-2009

June 2, 2021
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Marc Kulkin

It's a lot easier choosing a significant USC loss than it is trying to pick out one of the Trojans' most important wins.  So to make this exercise easier, Josh and I decided to pick an era that both of us have been alive to witness, and since the Clay Helton era isn't over, that narrowed our choices down to Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin, and Steve Sarkisian.  

Once we decided on the context, I knew immediately which hill to plant my flag on.   It was the singular win that launched the Pete Carroll Dynasty, and it happened in Miami. 

If you're thinking 55-19, you'd have an easy argument to make and one a lot of people will agree with; it was indeed one of the most dominant postseason performances that I have ever seen.  And like the rest of you who might remember the little things; If I ever get the chance, I'm going to ask Mark May and Bob Griese if they remember what they said pregame regarding the talent disparity between the two programs.  Although let's be fair; no one knew that USC had two Heisman winners playing in the same backfield at the time.  I mean, Matt Leinart had his, but Reggie Bush's Heisman was still a year away, and Oklahoma's Jason White, along with his "big suit," would be too much for USC to contend with.  But I digress.

That Orange Bowl game was important for many reasons, but it was NOT as significant as USC's Orange Bowl win against Iowa.

Thanks to the crack research staff on Twitter, I found out that 2002 was the last season the University of Southern California's men's basketball, baseball, AND football programs reached the postseason in the same calendar season.  First of all--YIKES!!!  By the way, did you know the Trojans only have three winning seasons in the last 18 years for baseball? So maybe 2022 will be the year the baseball team joins the party.--Football was eligible for postseason in 2021 but chose to opt-out and we know the basketball team made the Elite-8.

But back to 2002 and the start of something special. 

USC had finished the 2002 season as arguably the hottest and perhaps even the best team in the country, even though Ohio State and Miami were playing for the National Championship.  USC was relegated to an At-Large Orange Bowl Bid against BIG-10 runner-up, the No. 3 ranked Iowa Hawkeyes.

But after the Trojans “left no doubt” who the best quarterback was, let alone who was the better team after the 38-17 win, the rest of the country was catching a preview of what was yet to come.

A lot was riding on the game. First, it was a de-facto Rose Bowl game being played in Miami, and the game featured what would soon-to-be a string of Heisman trophy awards, beginning with winner Carson Palmer taking on the Heisman runner-up Brad Banks in the 2003 Orange Bowl.

What most expected to be an easy Iowa win never happened. Instead, the game turned into a Trojan postseason Victory March.

When the game was over, USC fans would see some of the 40,000 Iowa faithful who made the trip outside the stadium on their backs, with their hands covering their ears, writhing in mocked pain back and forth, screaming, "make it stop...make it stop!!!"--They were still suffering well after the game after enduring the Spirit of Troy's rendition of Conquest that played nonstop. The Hawkeye fans, along with their Heisman runner-up QB, Brad Banks, had to watch as USC's Heisman winner Carson Palmer led the Trojans on scoring drives of 79, 80, 99, 85, and 61 yards.

The opening kickoff is barely discussed when talking about the game, but it was the Iowa Hawkeye's lone highlight when C.J. Jones returned the ball 100 yards for a touchdown in a game that the Trojans would go on to win 38-17.  And the game was not as close as the 21-point differential at the end.

But hey, don't take my word for it.  Remember what Mike Williams had to say after the game? "We didn't think it would be this easy.--After the kickoff, they didn't do anything."

Now I can't remember if the Trojans were disrespected as much as they were before they pounded the Oklahoma Sooners 55-19 a few years later in the same stadium, but BMW’s words sounded like they had some vitriol behind them.--Almost like, you better recognize us now!  Kareem Kelly, the sometimes forgotten guy from the trio of receivers formed by Mike Williams and Keary Colbert, was pretty blunt following the game too. "They weren't used to our speed," Kelly said.  

"We're playing terrific football right now," coach Pete Carroll said. "We'd like to just keep on going."  

And why not?   Neither Miami nor Ohio State had enough firepower to keep up with the way the Trojans were playing.

Imagine if today’s playoff system were in place in 2002.  Whether it was intentional or not, Kirk Herbstreit made his fanbase grab the pitchforks when he said, "Is there any team in the country that wants a piece of the Trojans right now?"--He said this from the press box calling the game while his No. 2 Buckeyes were beating the No. 1 Miami Hurricanes in the Fiesta Bowl's national championship game.  

But when both games were viewed, and everything was over, this what the country found out; USC had outscored UCLA, Notre Dame, and No. 3 Iowa 134-51 over their final three games and had beaten a Top-25 team for the seventh time in the season, including winning their last eight games.

The beatdown of Iowa in the Orange Bowl was a precursor of things to come. USC would continue to humiliate her out-of-conference opponents, making Carson Palmer's post-game comments sound prophetic when he proclaimed that the Trojans were "just getting started" and wishes he could stay another year because "they're going to win a championship." 

However, not even the biggest Trojan sunshine pumper saw what was coming next, and neither did the rest of college football.

Auburn took a 23-0 loss at home on the Plains to open the 2003 season, and the rest, as they say, is what legends are made of.--By the way, this was No. 2 on my list and 55-19 checks-in at No. 3.

Future USC wins might have been more impressive on the scoreboard, like dropping 70 points on Arkansas or beating Notre Dame three straight years by 31-points or even running up 66 points against UCLA.  But the Orange Bowl win versus Iowa was the catalyst that made all of that possible.

As I opined from the start, no one will get much of an argument from me when 55-19 is brought up.  

However, the 2002 team, after their road loss to Kansas St, the Trojans started something that the rest of the college football world has not seen or been done since.  Alabama and others have come close to replicating Pete's Dynasty, but that's as far it's gotten.  

Iowa receiver Maurice Brown was sort of prophetic too following the game when he said, "USC is a great team with a lot of speed, and that's something we didn't handle too well."   

As it would turn out, no one else during the Pete Carroll era could handle USC either.--Until 2007.

Josh An

As listed above, Marc makes a lot of great points about the Orange Bowl win over Iowa. Yes, the Trojans destroyed a very solid Hawkeye team and showed they were primed to make a run over the next few years. However, over the years, many other teams have shown they can get hot for a season then fizzle out in the years to follow. Take, for example, 2016-2017 USC. By the end of that Rose Bowl season, many analysts and writers had the Trojans listed as their team that “no one wanted to face”. And while that team did not dismantle Penn State in the same fashion that USC did to Iowa, some thought that was going to be the win to usher USC back into the spotlight of college football.

Last week, I stated that college programs should be judged on how they perform on the biggest of stages. To follow that logic, I’m going with the Trojans’ emphatic Orange Bowl win over the Sooners in 2005 or known more affectionately by USC fans as 55-19. 

To provide some context of the game, the stakes could not have been higher and you were going to have a difficult time finding two more talented teams on paper. It was the first time two Hesiman trophy winners(Leinart and White), and the game featured 4 of the 5(!!) finalists for the 2004 season.

And while data that I can find showed the Trojans as a slight favorite, what ensured over the course of that night in Miami shocked the nation. USC was all over Oklahoma in the first half, outscoring the Sooners 38-10 in that period. By halftime, it was clear who the more dominant team was. Here’s a quote from Bob Stoops after the game.

"We just got whipped," Stoops said. "You really soul search as a coach how this could happen.”

And then a more telling quote by Reggie Bush:

"We're definitely on our way to qualifying as a dynasty," Bush said.

Overall, while 2002 against Iowa might have been the catalyst for what was to come for USC, the Orange Bowl victory over the Sooners was the exclamation point on one of the more electric eras of football any program has experienced.
 

 
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