As the Texas Longhorns broke the huddle that night, even history was on the edge of its seat, waiting to see how the 2006 Rose Bowl would end.
The moment of truth had come. Fourth down, five yards to go for a first down and eight for a touchdown, 26 seconds left, USC ahead 38-33. Or as Keith Jackson said to his millions of television viewers: "The national championship on the line right here." The Trojans were one stop away from a threepeat and a full-blown dynasty.
"The thing that happened on that play and nobody will know it, when we walked out of the huddle, [center] Lyle Sendlein, he read it. He called out every single player. I remember Selvin [tailback Young] leaving the huddle saying, 'Lyle, tell me a number and I’ll get him.' I can’t remember the number honestly."
It was No. 90, Frostee Rucker, at left end for USC. On the other end was No. 96 Lawrence Jackson, poised to launch an all-out rush on the Longhorns’ quarterback, Vince Young.
Nearly 12 years later, those two former Trojans would still be haunted by what happened next.
But that’s getting ahead of the story ...
Saturday, Texas and USC will play once again, down the road from the Rose Bowl at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum (8:30 p.m. ET, FOX). They are two of the bluest of bloods, but they have not seen one another in a long time. Not since Jan. 4, 2006, when they met on one of college football’s most hallowed stages, and played one of its most hallowed games.
"These kids, they were only 8, 9 or 10 years old when this happened," Studdard said of the current teams. "They don’t even remember that game, but they’re about to feel a lot of hype about that game."
Ah yes. The 2006 Rose Bowl.
Two immovable forces
USC arrived that night ranked No. 1, winner of 34 games in a row, two-time defending national champions with a pair of Heisman winners in its backfield — Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.
Texas was No. 2 and had won 19 in a row. The Longhorns had no Heisman winners, but they did have runner-up Vince Young, who had seethed only a month earlier when he lost in the voting to Bush, vowing to his teammates that night to get even in the Rose Bowl. "Our players were in a room watching the Heisman show," then-Texas coach Mack Brown said. "After the show, Vince called and said, 'You saw it, Reggie Bush won the Heisman. Game on.'"
The combined talent was stunning. More than three dozen players on the field that night would eventually see time in the NFL. Both teams averaged more than 50 points a game. Both had slipped by early rites of passage. Texas won by three points at Ohio State and snapped an infuriating five-year losing streak against Oklahoma. USC barely survived a trip to Notre Dame when Leinart scored a last-second touchdown, famously aided and abetted by a shove from his tailback, to be forever known as the "Bush Push."
Both teams rolled from there, understanding where it would end, and against whom. "Two teams staying neck and neck the whole season, eyeing each other at the end of the road," Rucker said.
Brown can remember his Texas players in a locker room, watching the USC-Notre Dame game, erupting in cheers when the Trojans scored. "I turned around and said 'What are you doing?’ And they said 'Coach we want to play SC.’ So it was a full year of wanting to play SC.”
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And when Brown says a full year, he means it.
“When we beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl the year before, Vince was being interviewed by John Saunders, who asked, 'How do you feel?’ Vince said, 'We’ll be back.’ At that moment, they were already talking about the national championship.
“Then in the summer, Vince puts on a grease board, 'Early summer workouts, anybody who wants to beat Ohio State, meet me at the practice field at 7 in the morning.’ The entire team showed up. So you knew they were serious.”
Studdard: “Our warmup tape ever since the spring had been The Notorious B.I.G. song, Going Back to Cali. Our warmup tape every day. 'Going, going, back, back to Cali.' That was our motto. When you were stretching and you heard that, it was like, 'All right let’s go get better.' It was motivation to work our ass off.”
Ohio State was a hurdle. So was Oklahoma. The Longhorns crushed the Sooners 45-12 on Oct. 8.
“After that, everybody on the team and the coaching staff started thinking about USC,” Brown said. “It probably wasn’t very smart. You’re always supposed to look at the next game. But we felt the kids were already talking about it, so we should start talking about USC. So every Sunday we actually started comparing our stats and scores to USC stats and scores, instead of the team we played. Which was probably really stupid, but it ended up working out.”
The Trojans had become southern California’s hottest act, with a bandwagon big enough to accommodate VIPs and Hollywood stars. Only a happy ending seemed conceivable.
“We knew that we would get everybody’s best shot. We didn’t sneak up on anybody, we weren’t a surprise,” Jackson said. “Everybody wanted to beat us, every stadium was out of control, it was the biggest game in the students’ careers there and the players’. But we really wanted to dominate, we really wanted to conquer, we really wanted to let them know that we were there.”
Then, he had one other important thing to do.
“You're trying to figure out your pregame talk, when you’re 54 years old and you always wanted to coach for a national championship, and it’s finally here. And you’ve got an entire staff and kids that are looking at you for answers. So I sat in my room for about two hours trying to figure out what I was going to say, and nothing seemed appropriate, and then I turned the TV on and I saw three 30-minute shows of Jerry Springer. I’d never seen that before, it was amazing to me.”
For 90 minutes, he watched in fascination as the guests poured out angry domestic horror stories, in customary Springer fashion.
“So I walked into the locker room and all eyes are on me, and the first thing I said was, 'Thank you. Thank you for getting us here. You guys did it.’ Secondly I said, 'I’ve been thinking about what to say, and I figured out something that if you’ll listen to me for the next minute and a half, it’s going to not only win the game for you but it’s going to change your life forever.’
“So I’ve got ‘em now. I said, 'If your girlfriend or your wife ever asks you to go on the show, Jerry Springer, men, don’t go. Because I am telling you it is not good.’
“That was the pregame talk. We had to get them to relax.”
A classic from the start
The epic could then begin, and none too well for Texas. USC scored a touchdown in the first three minutes, and was on the march again when Bush inexplicably tried to lateral to an unsuspecting teammate, with Longhorn Michael Huff recovering the fumble. Had the Trojans jumped ahead 14-0, they might have been gone for good.
Instead, a frantic night of back-and-forth began that would, in the end, see five lead changes, 1,130 yards, 60 first downs, but only three turnovers and four punts. By halftime Texas was up 16-10. In the third quarter, USC regained the lead, then Texas, then USC again. Leinart was on the way to completing 15 of 16 passes in the second half, LenDale White to 124 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Title-worthy numbers.
The Trojans pushed in front 38-26 with just under seven minutes left. But there was still time, and Vince Young was still the Texas quarterback.
He led a quick scoring drive that made it 38-33 with just over four minutes to go. The Trojans tried to move the ball and eat up the last minutes. They made it as far as the Texas 45, facing 4th and 2, and 2:13 left. A punt would push the Longhorns back and force them to take a long road. A first down would seal the game.
Pete Carroll went for the first down, handing the ball to White, figuring Texas had not stopped him all night, so why would it happen now? That will forever remain the most second-guessed decision of his college career. The Longhorns were waiting, especially Huff, the same guy who had pounced on Bush’s fumble.
“The D-line got a great push, and kept the O-line off of me,” Huff said this month from Austin, where he is now a Longhorns assistant. “I just shot the gap. We hadn’t stopped LenDale, he was running downhill on us all day.”
They stopped him this time, Huff in the middle of it, making a memory to cherish in what he noted “was one of my last plays ever in college football.” Texas had one more chance, with 56 yards to go and 2:19 to get there.
“Without that stop, Vince Young didn’t get to be Vince Young,” said Huff, who would be named the game’s defensive MVP. “We knew at that moment we would win.”
No thought of failure? “Not a chance. He was Superman,” said Studdard, who mentioned Young coming into the huddle to begin the final drive with confidence and a smile on his face. “The smile was when we knew we were going to do it.”
The Trojan defenders had to be tired, didn’t they? “I don’t think there was any fatigue factor going on,” Jackson said. “At this point, it was a battle, and we wanted to finish the job. We’d been in situations like that before, where the defense was counted on to have the offense’s back.”
But this was Vince Young. It took him six plays to get Texas to the USC 13. Three plays after that, the Longhorns were looking at that 4th-and-5 at the Trojans’ 8. All they worked for, had come down to this.
It was to be a pass play, with several options, but Brown had one message for his quarterback: “I told Vince, 'You’re a really good passer, but you’re great with your feet. So if you don’t see what’s open, you just have to make five yards for a first down. You can do that.”
Rucker set himself on one end for USC, Jackson on the other. A lot of legacy at two different college football Meccas was to be determined by the next play.
In their minds, it is 2006 again.
One fateful play
On the snap, Jackson comes rolling in from the left side, extending his arms, taking aim at Young. But a bump from tackle Jonathan Scott, knocks him off his charge just a step. That's enough. Young, having taken a quick look at covered receivers, vanishes around the right end.
Jackson: “I turned the corner and I saw Vince and it flashed through my head, I’m about to make the sack of my career and we’re about to threepeat. But as soon as I go to turn the corner and extend my arms and grab him and finish the sack, simultaneously he was out of there.
“If you watch the replay I think you can see my body language, as soon as he cleared the line of scrimmage, because I saw the same thing he saw ... wide open.
“I felt like I had a legitimate and the only realistic chance before the scramble. I felt like I had a responsibility to make that play. I have to live with that for the rest of my life. Had I made that play, it would have tremendously changed the trajectory of my life and my career.”
Rucker: “There was supposed to be someone out there to cover for me ... The record we had, from playing two years straight without losing, then watching him cross the goal line, knowing we were going to take a loss in basically a home game, it stung.
“It took a team like that, it took a player like Vince Young, to do that.”
“There was some shock and there was some awe,” Jackson said of the USC locker room afterward. “Coach Carroll was trying to put it in perspective for us, but I don’t think anyone expected us to lose to Texas that night. A lot of players have plays they wish they could have back.”
The winners tried to cope with what they had done. It had been 35 years since Texas’ last national championship, an eternity in a land that loves football so.
The next day, Vince Young would describe his post-victory evening. “Everyone was asleep, and I kind of went on the balcony and just sat out there and had my little words with the man upstairs ... I’m just a real blessed guy to be in the position I am right now.”
Studdard 12 years later: “That game took more energy out of my life than I ever had in a game before. After that game, I just went back to my hotel room and passed out. It took everything out of both teams, everything they had.”
Huff: “If you look at our roster, it was probably 98 percent Texas kids, or kids who had Texas ties. For Texas kids to bring a national championship home was a really special.”
“When the game’s over, you really don’t realize what you’ve done. You’re tired and you’re excited. Vince Young leaves the next Monday for the NFL, so then you have to start over and get yourself a new quarterback and go recruiting. The first time [wife] Sally and I even realized we had won the national championship was Valentine’s Day when we took all the players to the White House. She started crying. She said this is what every coach wants, to bring their team to the White House.
“I think every day we get away from it, it was such a special night, such a special game. Maybe the best ever. If not, it’s in the talk.”
Living with history, every day
And the two Trojans who had Vince Young in their sights at the exact right moment? Time has not wiped out the memory.
Not for Lawrence Jackson ...
“I think it hasn’t gone away for a lot of guys. For me especially. If anybody says they’re from Texas or anytime I see a car with a Texas flag, it’s something you live with. We lost to a great player. Me personally. I think he was motivated by the fact that he didn’t win the Heisman. Had he gotten the Heisman, maybe we would have won the game.
“That play is something I consciously try not to replay. But it’s interesting, in this year’s Rose Bowl I had tickets and my tickets were right around the 10-yard line behind the USC bench, and it put me in the perfect vantage spot of where the Texas play happened. So it sent me on a lot of flashbacks.
“I take great pride in the fact that I was part of the greatest game in history. I was the only one that had a legitimate chance at Vince Young, and I touched him on that play. I could have been a hero, but it was his moment, and not my moment.
"I’ve watched the last play just to see how close I was, just to have something I can use the rest of my life. On the biggest stage ever, here I am faced with the fact that I have to accept it was another man’s moment and not mine.”
Nor for Frostee Rucker, now with the Arizona Cardinals ...
“Fortunately I didn’t have a lot of time [to dwell on the loss].I had to start training and getting my plans together for the NFL. But it still lingers, 12 years later we’re talking about it now. No one’s ever let me [forget it].
“It’s part of my legacy, it’s part of my history. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be playing today. Things like that have fueled me to keep going and rewrite my own history. Everyone wishes they could go back and take back a play, take back a moment in their life. But you can’t. You’ve got to grow from it. I definitely grew from it. If you look across the board, that draft class, I’m the last one standing. I think I got the last laugh.
“There have been many times in my professional career where I could have — I can’t say quit — but once you get financially secure and know who you are as a person, you can be content with yourself. Everybody in college football, that’s their last memory of me. I choose to make my memory a little bit different.”
Rucker calls atoning for that night, “finding the why in what you do.”
Saturday, when Texas and USC meet again, he’ll think back. They all will, those who shared the moment, both sides knowing how close they were to being on the other end of history's pendulum, with the 180-degree shift in lifetime emotions to go with it.
The winners still savor, the losers still regret. But together, they made magic. Never was the phrase “instant classic” more surely earned. Maybe Pete Carroll said it best in defeat, moments after the Texas Longhorns broke his heart.
“This was a night for champions.”