Southern California has left little doubt that it is the best team in the nation right now. Two more wins and that will be an undisputable fact.
The top-ranked Trojans, on track to play for their second straight national championship, try to keep their perfect record intact when they host archrival UCLA on Saturday.
Coming off their most impressive win of the season, USC (11-0, 7-0 Pac-10) is one victory away from securing a spot in the Orange Bowl for the Bowl Championship Series title. The Trojans are off to their best start since 1972, when they won the national championship with a 12-0 record.
Following a sluggish first quarter against Notre Dame on Saturday, USC dominated the rest of the way and coasted to a 41-10 victory. Matt Leinart made a strong case for the Heisman Trophy, passing for a career-high 400 yards and a school record-tying five touchdowns, and the Trojans limited the Irish to 135 yards after their first two possessions.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth,” USC defensive lineman Shaun Cody said. “Give them credit. Everyone stepped up, made a little adjustment on defense. It was nothing big, we just played more physically against them.”
Leinart’s performance may have been the one that makes him the second USC quarterback in three years to win the Heisman Trophy, joining Carson Palmer.
“I realize the stage was set for national TV,” Leinart said. “But I just do the stuff I’ve been doing all year. Just be a leader, just make plays. I know a lot of people are saying stuff. I just go out and do my job.”
It was the 20th straight win and 31st in 32 games for USC, which can clinch the Pac-10 title outright with a victory Saturday.
UCLA coach Karl Dorrell has no doubt that USC is worthy of its No. 1 ranking.
“They started the season ranked No. 1 and no one’s beaten them, so I still think they’re No. 1,” he said. “Think about it from their perspective. They’ve been No. 1 from the very beginning and every team for 10 weeks has been out to get them, and still they’ve won every game. Why would they not be No. 1?”
Leinart directs a powerful offense that is averaging 37.5 points and 439.6 yards per game. While those numbers are slightly off last year’s national championship pace, the Trojans’ are a much stronger defensive team this season, allowing only 11.5 points and 269.5 yards.
Leinart and tailback Reggie Bush were named co-winners of the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year award announced Monday.
Leinart, the fourth player to be a two-time winner of the award, has completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,748 yards and 28 touchdowns heading into the regular season finale. He is eighth in the nation in passing efficiency and has won 20 straight games, throwing 58 touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
Bush has been the most dangerous all-around player in the conference, leading the league with 167.8 all-purpose yards per game with 13 touchdowns.
Already with a win over Notre Dame this season, Pete Carroll has a chance to become the first coach to guide the Trojans to victories over both the Irish and UCLA—USC’s biggest rivals—in three straight seasons.
Fatigue is one problem UCLA (6-4, 4-3) won’t have to deal with Saturday because it hasn’t played since a 34-26 victory at Oregon on Nov. 13.
Dorrell said his team didn’t necessarily use the time off to change things for USC.
“It gives you extra time to prepare, but it’s the 11th game of the season, you’re not going to change your offense, not going to change your defense,” he said.
Third-string tailback Chris Markey, filling in for injured starter Maurice Drew, ran for 131 yards against Oregon, and caught five passes for 84 yards, helping the Bruins become bowl eligible.
Drew, UCLA’s leader in rushing, all-purpose yards and touchdowns, is expected to play Saturday.
USC has won five straight meetings with UCLA, taking the last three by a combined 126-43 score.