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January 4, 2006

Measuring up USC, Texas

The stars have grabbed most of the headlines surrounding tonight's national championship game in the Rose Bowl. The battle between two the most potent and explosive offenses in the history of college football has grabbed what attention is left.

But what about the actual game plans? Each coaching staff has had more than 30 days to prepare, and both teams will be unveiling some new strategies.

How will No. 2 Texas try and stop Reggie Bush? Who will spy on Vince Young? Rivals.com takes an in-depth look at those questions and many more in this preview of what to watch for in all facets of the historic showdown.

No. 1 USC Trojans
No. 2 Texas Longhorns
When USC passes:
When Texas defends the pass:
The Trojans' aerial attack is more about personnel than trickery, relying on the superb decision making of Matt Leinart (pictured) and his unmatched assortment of weapons.

On top of that long list is Dwayne Jarrett. The 6-5, 210-pound WR is a matchup nightmare. Steve Smith (6-0, 195) provides the perfect complement as a much smaller target with tremendous speed. Bush normally lines up in the slot, creating mismatches. TE Dominique Byrd and FB David Kirtman both have good hands and are Leinart's last options. Regardless of what matchups materialize, expect lots of play action passes in an effort to confuse Griffin and Huff.

Texas' nickel package will be inserted, but with more zone coverage in an effort to get more defenders around Bush. LB Rashad Bobino will be replaced by corners Tarell Brown or Aaron Ross. The secondary is full of interchangeable parts.

Corner Cedric Griffin, is used at safety at times, and backup safety Marcus Griffin also sees routine action. Michael Huff (pictured) and Michael Griffin can match up with WRs and will take turns shadowing Bush. They will also take turns blitzing although DEs Brian Robinson and Tim Crowder will be responsible for most of the pass rush. Jarrett may present the biggest problem. No Texas DB is taller than 6-1, which means automatic double teams.

When USC defends the pass:
When Texas passes:
The Trojans will unveil some of the most complicated blitz packages in college football, as Pete Carroll will have linebackers and safeties pressuring Young from all angles imaginable.

Darnell Bing (pictured) and Keith Rivers will do the bulk of the blitzing and Lawrence Jackson and Frostee Rucker will be looking to get around the edge of the O-line. Josh Pinkard and CB Justin Wyatt will be left in lots of man coverage, along with nickel back John Walker. Pinkard and Bing will take turns covering Thomas. Veteran safety Scott Ware will be responsible not to let anyone get behind him and making TD-saving tackles if needed.

Look for plenty of play action and a handful of bombs. A big chunk of Vince Young's 2,769 passing yards have come after faking handoffs.

When defenses put eight men in the box, he will often take a three-step drop and loft a pass in the direction of whoever is in man-to-man coverage. That's usually Billy Pittman or Limas Sweed, who combined to average 20.3 yards a catch. But Young's favorite target is David Thomas, who lines up in the slot and will be moved all around the field. When Young is rolling out or under pressure, he normally fires the ball in the direction of the sure-handed TE.

When USC runs:
When Texas defends the run:
The Trojans will rely on the nation's best backfield duo runaway Heisman winner Reggie Bush and the underrated LenDale White (pictured). Bush's transformation from an all-purpose threat to a real running back along with a dominating O-line turned the Trojans' ground game into the core of what may be the best offense ever.

Bush proved he could run inside the tackles and racked up some remarkable stats this season. His cutback ability remains his best asset while White relies more on power and patience. The Trojans utilize basic formations and only use a handful of running plays, most of which count heavily on guards Fred Matua and Taitusi Lutui.

The Longhorns will do everything possible to funnel Bush and White into the middle of the field where the strength of their defense lies. Safeties Michael Griffin and Michael Huff, who combined for 213 tackles, will take turns lining up near the line of scrimmage.

Expect a lot of shifting from the front four. A steady three-man rotation of defensive tackles Larry Dibbles, Frank Okam (pictured), and Rod Wright (average of 6-4, 305-pounds) gives them plenty of power and depth. MLB Aaron Harris will be charged with blowing up blocking assignments. They must all win or hold their own in one-on-one battles to slow down White and contain Bush.

When USC defends the run:
When Texas runs:
The pressure will be on DEs Lawrence Jackson and Frostee Rucker, who have combined for 25 tackles for loss. The duo will be counted on to win one-on-one battles against two of the nation's top tackles and force Young and company back inside the hashmarks.

Outside LBs Keith Rivers and Brian Cushing a true freshman who will be making his first start will also play key roles. Nobody will be asked to do more than SS Darnel Bing, who will make late charges into the box and also try and shadow Young's every move. CB Josh Pinkard, a great tackler, will help when option plays arise.

The Vince Young show starts here. Working primarily out of the shotgun and one-back sets, the Heisman runner-up makes most of his big runs out of zone reads. He takes the snap, usually heads right, quickly takes a look at where the LBs and DEs are heading and picks a running lane. What normally follows is a sharp cut and a long race down the sideline. The play is designed to take advantage of their great O-line and force defenders to make quick decisions. The speedy Jamaal Charles (pictured), another major threat, gets the bulk of the handoffs and a diverse group of runners - Ramonce Taylor, Henry Melton and Selvin Young - also split carries.
USC special teams
Texas special teams
The Trojans most glaring weaknesses involve the kicking game. Bush remains a dangerous returner, but is averaging a run-of-the-mill 9.9 yards a punt return and 17.0 a kick return this season.

Covering kicks has been a big problem. The Trojans are giving up more than 17 yards a punt return. Kicker Mario Danelo went 10-of-11 on field goals this season, but has never attempted to make a big kick and has only one attempt from outside 40 yards (his only miss). Punter Tom Malone has been solid, averaging 41.7 yards a punt.

This is where the Longhorns really shine and often create big swings on the scoreboard. Their punt return and punt blocking units rank among the best in the nation. Aaron Ross (pictured) has returned two punts for scores and is averaging 15.0 yards per punt return. They have combined for nine blocked kicks, including four blocked punts from Michael Griffin.

Kicker David Pino has been a weapon, making 12-of-15 field goals, including all five attempts from 40-45 yards out. Punter Richmond McGee has struggled at times, averaging 38.1 yards a punt.

USC coaching
Texas coaching
Pete Carroll hasn't been around the college game as long as most head coaches, but already seems to have mastered the job. A defensive wizard, he knows how to keep his players loose for big games and also does a great job of making second-half adjustments.

The Trojans often pull away from opponents in the third quarter. The fact that he and some of his assistants have been in games of similar magnitude and continually come out on top must give them and the players more confidence.

Mack Brown's coaching stock is soaring at the moment. Under his leadership, the Longhorns have won their last 19 games and maybe, more importantly, he finally beat Oklahoma.

Still, questions remain about he and his staff's ability to adjust or come from behind. Nobody has tested the Longhorns this season or forced them out of their game plan on either side of the ball. How will Brown and his team react if the Trojans do just that?

USC intangibles:
Texas intangibles:
The last two Heisman winners. A current 34-game winning streak. One of the best offenses ever. There are so many reasons to believe in the Trojans. The Rose Bowl provides one more big one. Leinart, Bush and other veterans will be playing their final college game just a few miles away from USC's campus in front of a pro-Trojans crowd. Remember the last Rose Bowl. None of the Longhorns will ever forget it. A thrilling 38-37 win over Michigan included four touchdown runs and nearly 200 yards on the ground from Young. The memories of the game along with the return of Young may provide he and his teammates a needed edge.

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