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Distant Replay: The 2006 USC vs. Texas Rose Bowl

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This classic game’s iconic moments are etched in college football history.

The 2006 iteration of the Rose Bowl is arguably known as one of the greatest college football games of all time. It had illustrious matchup written all over it pregame, and saw historic performances dot its quarters, mid-game drives become infamous, and ultimately finished as one of the best overall games in not just college football, but sports history.

On Wednesday night, ESPN will air and livestream the 2006 Rose Bowl in its entirety, as part of its “Games of the Century” series. You can catch that beginning at 8 p.m. ET (5 p.m. PT), and you definitely should.

And a better way to make yourself feel better about watching it along with us? The — spoilers, now! — ultimate loss by USC never actually happened.

Yes, that’s right, this loss was also vacated along with the wins from the 2005-06 season. As unusual as it is true, this result never happened for USC fans.

So, flip it on. Rewatch it with us live, in the comments section, with the the Conquest Chronicles Twitter account, and in the Banner Society Slack channel, which will open up shortly before the broadcast. Have some fun and enjoy one of the greatest college football games of the BCS era, one of the greatest football games of all time.

We know we will.

As you likely know by now, it was a game that truly had it all. The USC Trojans and Texas Longhorns entered as the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the nation, respectively. They had identical, undefeated 12-0 records. It was for all the marbles. It was the first game in college football history to start two Heisman Trophy winners in the same lineup when Matt Leinart (the 2004 winner) and Reggie Bush (2005) occupied the same backfield.

(Okay, fine, Reggie forfeited his Heisman five years later, but at the time this was history.)

USC entered riding a 34-game winning streak, while Texas had a 19-game winning streak of their own. The runner-up in the Heisman race was on the other side from Bush and Leinart. His name was Vince Young.

The 2006 Rose Bowl is the highest-rated BCS game in TV history.

It was the final game ever called by the legend Keith Jackson, damnit.

Truly, it had it all. And that was before it was colloquially deemed as the greatest national championship game ever played. That’s before the game-winning score from Young with 19 seconds on the clock was ranked as the fifth-greatest play in college football history — on fourth down, no less.

Legends were born in this game.

I still remember where I was when I watched it. I remember who I was with. I remember almost every play. And I’m sure you all do, too.

It was early January 2006 — I was a senior in high school. Well ... a partial senior, as I had been on track to graduate early but opted out later on and essentially had one high school class from January to April before venturing to Florida State at the end of April, but that’s beside the point.

My late father and my little brother, a budding football player himself, all sat on the couch together, unknowingly about to witness the best game of our lives. We were one of the 35.6 million viewers to watch the game, a mere tiny percentage of the 21.7% of all American households to have the game on at the time.

This was before DVR. (Well, back before most households were splurging on TiVo, anyway.) You HAD to watch it live, or you would miss out.

Its lore has only gotten stronger over the years, and as we just passed its 14th anniversary in January, we’re now greeted with the absolute pleasure or ultimate displeasure for Trojan and Longhorn fans, as well as fans of the sport to relive the game in all its glory.

TOP OF THEIR GAME

This one is easy. It was Vince Young. His legend truly began here, even though he had just finished second in the Heisman voting a few weeks prior. Even though he had already won a handful of awards.

Young accumulated 471 total yards of offense and won the MVP for the second straight year in the Rose Bowl. And sorry, no Distant Replay would be complete without mentioning and showing one of the greatest plays of all time, even if it didn’t go USC’s way.

This performance, well certainly alongside his entire body of work in his college career to date, secured his selection as the third overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. He won the NFL Rookie of the Year in 2006, Comeback Player of the Year and a Pro Bowl selection in 2009 and all but secured his spot as one of the all-time greatest college quarterbacks.

A spot as the quarterback on one of the greatest college football plays of all time.

Honorable mention goes to head coach Mack Brown here as well as he finally knocked off the USC dynasty by winning ‘his first big game’ of his career, something he was critically maligned for.

HINDSIGHT IS 20/20

Don’t pitch it, Reggie. Just don’t.

Bush’s fumble on a botched pitch on the second play of the second quarter (36:47 in the above video) certainly didn’t go as planned. Bush broke free off a Leinart pass, jetted 35 yards upfield, into the red zone. He looked to make a play.

Don’t pitch it.

He collides with two Texas players.

He pitched it.

It hit the ground.

Texas recovered.

Don’t pitch it.

He pitched it.

Then there’s also the LenDale White fourth-down attempt up the middle with 2:13 left in the game from the Texas 45 (2:32:30 in the above video). Peter Clay Carroll decided to give it to White again, a play after he fumbled and Steve Smith saved the day (for at least 10 seconds). White was stuffed for a one-yard gain and the Longhorns took back over with a chance to win it.

Today’s logic says go for it on fourth down in that scenario, but analytics and the go-for-it logic wasn’t quite there in 2006. Had it worked, the outcome is completely different and this paragraph goes into the ‘top of their game’ category.

SHOUT OUT TO THE LITTLE GUY

Josh Pinkard had arguably the best game of his entire career for the Trojans as he racked up six solo tackles and another assist. No player had much of an impact on the passing game as Young was able to complete passes at will but Pinkard had a terrific pass breakup and kept plays in front of him.

He went on to play a single season in the NFL after going undrafted and having a DUI arrest to his credit during his time at USC but his shining moment certainly came against Texas, even in defeat.

SIT/START

By some degree, this was the end of Bush’s tenure at the top of his class as well. To his credit, he truly could only go down after his college career and subsequent 2005 season that saw him win the Heisman by a large margin.

Sure, he was selected second overall in the 2006 draft but he totaled 5,490 career rushing yards over 11 years and made the Pro Bowl just once, as a kick returner. He was forced to vacate his Heisman Trophy a few years after winning it, and ended his NFL career after an astonishing -3 yards on 12 carries in his final season in the league.

Still, he was one of the most exciting college football players of all time and as obligatory as video embeds go, enjoy this Reggie Bush highlight:

By another degree, this was also the end of the line for Leinart, who even though he was also drafted 10th overall in the 2006 draft, totaled just 2,547 passing yards in his rookie season with Arizona and never crossed the 1,000-yard plateau in his brief NFL career after. He finished his NFL stint with three teams and a negative TD-to-INT ratio.

The 2006 Rose Bowl was the last time they’d don a USC jersey and certainly the last time they knew they were the best player on the field when they took the field.

LUCK DIDN’T HURT

It wasn’t so much luck as it was a missed call. I don’t need to rehash it too much here. We all know his knee was down. The ball was CLEARLY in his hand and his knee was down (1:00:13 above). Matt Leinart knew it.

“Obviously, Vince’s knee was down, a hundred percent,” Leinart said in a 2017 interview with SB Nation. “We all know it. They know it. It doesn’t matter. It was a missed call.”

There was also Leinart’s least favorite result of the game, an early first quarter fourth-down conversion from the 27-yard line that he tripped over his own lineman’s leg (25:30 above).

“That was a possession that we got no points on, and people kind of forget about that, but that was some play that always sticks out in my mind, that I just felt like I should’ve called time out,” Leinart said.

THE BEST THING WE FORGOT HAPPENED

I hinted at it earlier and it was basically undone just moments later but Steve Smith’s saving of the game, even for a few brief seconds, shaped up to be the best thing to happen for USC (2:31:00 above). However, you forget it happens because White is stuffed the very next play and the possession is lost.

Smith was largely a non-factor in the game as well, catching only three passes for 29 yards. His moment to shine was the securing of the fumble by White on third down that would have allowed USC to punt it away and force Young and Co. to go the length of the field or had White gotten the extra yard needed on the fourth-down attempt, Smith’s play would have been etched in USC history.

Look, this one doesn’t end the way USC fans wanted it to, and there’s no telling if you even want to watch it again. USC fans are probably the only people in the country that don’t want to rewatch this game again, though, because it was just that good.

If there’s anything to take solace in at this time, know that the quarterbacks from this matchup remain good friends, Carroll can’t go for it on fourth down for USC anymore, and if the history books are to be believed, this loss was vacated. Which means that it doesn’t count, and that it never happened.

So you can feel at ease taking delight in watching this game one more time tonight. At long last.