It’s been more than a decade in the making, and it’s finally here. For the first time since Vince Young broke Trojan hearts in 2006, USC will face Texas. All 93,607 seats in the Coliseum have been sold, and this weekend’s primetime game has even caught the attention of celebrities like Lance Armstrong.
But instead of talking about USC’s championship aspirations or Texas’ attempted recovery under new head coach Tom Herman, all the discussion leading up to Saturday’s tilt has been centered on the infamous 2006 Rose Bowl game. In fact, the biggest story so far is probably the fact that USC vacated its 2006 loss to Texas due to NCAA sanctions. Some in the media tried to frame the Trojans as sore losers who tried to erase embarrassing history, and outspoken Longhorn fan Armstrong slammed USC in an expletive-filled tweet.
“Negative @USC, we were there. You lost the game fair and square,” Armstrong said. “Btw, @ReggieBush is a f—ing legend that you s— all over.”
Forget the laughable fact that Lance Armstrong of all people said this — it’s not like his seven (stripped) Tour de France titles were “fair and square.” Forget the fact that USC actually vacated the loss on the orders of the NCAA. What’s most shocking is that this non-story gained so much traction in the first place. And that’s because there’s really nothing to discuss about Saturday’s game other than the 11-year-old shadow hanging over it.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way: The Trojans opened the year ranked No. 4 in the AP poll, and the Longhorns were No. 23. Had both teams entered this week undefeated, it would have set the stage for a titanic clash of college football bluebloods with wind in their sails. Alas, Texas couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain, losing 51-41 to Maryland at home on opening day. Now, the Longhorns are all but out of the national discussion, and Vegas favors the Trojans by more than two touchdowns in Saturday’s game.
Nevertheless, I’m sure everyone in Los Angeles is sick of re-living 2006’s heartbreak — so let’s actually break down this weekend’s matchup. Despite bookies pegging this as a mismatch, the point spread may be too high considering Texas rebounded from its Week 1 loss by annihilating San Jose State 56-0 last Saturday.
But even with some momentum heading into the weekend, Texas will have to contain USC’s offense after giving up more than 30 points in eight of its 12 games last year. The team is also dealing with question marks at quarterback: sophomore Shane Buechele started against Maryland, but a shoulder injury thrust true freshman Sam Ehlinger into the spotlight a week later against the Spartans. With so little else going for them right now, the last thing the Longhorns need is uncertainty under center, but they will be relieved to see junior linebacker Porter Gustin listed as doubtful for USC, meaning one of the Trojans’ most dangerous pass rushers will be eliminated — or at the very least limited.
Gustin’s injury undoubtedly comes as a blow for head coach Clay Helton, and it feeds into the biggest concern for USC this week: the injury bug. Redshirt sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who was one of the team’s biggest red-zone threats last season, has been shut down indefinitely with a lower-body injury. Freshman defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu has been ruled out after he sprained his knee against Stanford in his first career start, and sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. still hasn’t seen the field this year thanks to an ankle issue. The Trojans probably feel good about their chances on Saturday regardless, but depth isn’t this squad’s strength. With no bye week this season, it’s a little concerning to see wear and tear taking its toll on the roster this early in the campaign.
The last thing USC can afford to do, however, is tread lightly on Saturday. Putting too much focus on staying healthy for the long run could cause the season to implode in the near future. At the same time, the Trojans can ill-afford more injuries with back-to-back road games coming up — one of them on a short week. The difficulty of striking this balance is what might make this a trap game: It isn’t easy to play (or coach) with one eye on next week, but the Trojans may have to do so.
I know it’s not the most compelling storyline for a sold-out primetime game. I suppose it makes sense, then, that everyone is still talking about 2006; even as a Trojan fan, it might be more compelling to argue about LenDale White’s fourth-down run or Reggie Bush’s bizarre lateral attempt than to discuss the Longhorns’ quarterback predicament or Gustin’s status for game day. But after USC snapped its three-game losing streak to Stanford last weekend, Saturday brings a chance to exorcise more demons.
Though the Coliseum won’t quite feel like Pasadena did 11 years ago, the sellout crowd will give the contest a bowl-game feel. It’ll be a rollicking atmosphere, and perhaps the Trojans are raring to exact their revenge.
Remember, though, that Texas robbed a national championship from USC. The best revenge won’t come this weekend, but rather through surviving and advancing. Then it’s on to Cal — and down the line, hopefully Atlanta.
Ollie Jung is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, Jung Money, runs Fridays.