Oct. 9, 2004
By RALPH D. RUSSO
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Southern California seemed helpless as Aaron Rodgers picked away at its defense, hitting pass after pass.
But with California just 9 yards from a potential winning score, the Trojans finally found a way to stop the Golden Bears' near-perfect quarterback.
The top-ranked Trojans held the seventh-ranked Bears out of the end zone after a first-and-goal with less than two minutes left and held on for a 23-17 victory Saturday.
"I was running on empty, our defense was running on empty, but I knew they weren't going to score," Trojans defensive end Shaun Cody said.
Southern California (5-0, 2-0 Pac-10) extended its winning streak to 14 games and avenged its only loss in the last 26. The Bears' 34-31 triple-overtime victory last season kept the Trojans from claiming an undisputed national title.
Before Cal's final four plays, Rodgers was 29-for-31 for 267 yards and a touchdown.
"It's frustrating as a defense when a guy is on fire like that," Cody said. "You've just got to hold on and try to do something thing to stop them from the end zone."
That just what the Trojans did after Rodgers got Cal (3-1, 1-1) to first-and-goal at the 9 with just under two minutes left.
Southern Cal got a sack and forced three incomplete passes.
Rodgers' final throw came with pressure coming and zipped by a diving Geoff McArthur in the end zone, sending most of the more than 90,000 at the Los Angeles Coliseum into a frenzy and the Bears home with a hard-fought loss.
Matt Leinart threw two touchdown passes for the Trojans, who failed to get a first down in the fourth quarter.
"Anybody watching this game knows we really dominated the game. We just came up a little short in the score," said Rodgers, who tied an NCAA record by completing his first 23 passes for the Bears (3-1, 1-1).
It was the first time in 52 years the Golden Bears and Trojans met with both teams ranked in the top 10, and the much-awaited matchup lived up to the hype.
The teams traded touchdowns to start the third quarter with Leinart hooking up with Dwayne Jarrett on a 16-yard score and Marshawn Lynch plunging in from 2 yards out for Cal to make it 23-17.
Reggie Bush appeared to get the momentum back for Southern Cal with an electrifying 84-yard kickoff return. Bush bobbled the ball twice trying to field the kick, then split the coverage and raced clear across the field before being taken down at the 16.
But Cal thwarted the Trojans when Harrison Smith intercepted Leinart's tipped pass in the end zone.
Cal dominated the fourth quarter putting together two long drives. The only thing the Bears failed to do was score.
"Bend but don't break, that's what this game became," Trojans coach Pete Carroll said.
Tom Schneider missed a 36-yard field goal wide right with 6:53 left that would have pulled Cal within three.
Rodgers and Co. got the ball back with 4:30 left.
"We expected to win when we took the field," Rodgers said. "I said, 'We're going to go 65 yards right here and get the win.' It's just frustrating that we couldn't get the job done."
Rodgers hooked up with McArthur on passes of 11 and 19 yards, the latter a dart over a defender as McArthur streaked down the sideline that gave the Bears a first down at the 9.
Rodgers threw his first incompletion that wasn't a throwaway on first down, and Southern Cal snuffed out a shovel pass play with Manuel Wright sacking the junior quarterback on second down.
After another incomplete throw into the end zone on third down from the 14, Cal called a timeout.
With the crowd blaring, Southern Cal got a push up the middle and made the biggest stop of the game. All that was left was for Leinart to take a knee twice and secure the Trojans' latest escape.
The Trojans had to rally from 11 points down at half to beat Stanford 31-28 in their last game.
"The last two weeks have been a battle to the end," said Leinart, who lost the battle of Heisman contender quarterbacks, going 15-for-25 for 164 yards - not that it mattered to the junior.
"I'm so excited I can hardly talk," he said.
J.J. Arrington had 112 yards on 21 carries for the Bears, who outgained the Trojans 424-205 but have still never beaten a No. 1 team in seven tries.
For a change, Southern Cal got off to good start against the Bears. Cal outscored the Trojans 42-10 in the first half of the last two meetings. This time the Trojans grabbed an early 10-0 advantage with the help of a couple of Cal miscues.
The first came when Cal punter David Lonie couldn't handle a low snap and was tackled at the Bears 31. Moments later, Leinart hit LenDale White sneaking out of the backfield from 5 yards out for a 7-0 lead.
Cal's defense allowed only three first-half field goals by Ryan Killeen after the touchdown, shutting down Southern Cal after the Trojans came up with two takeaways and had a chance to build a comfortable lead.
The Bears had little trouble moving the ball in the first half, looking every bit like the second-ranked offense in the country, but it took a while for them to get into the end zone.
Rodgers completed a perfect first half with a 20-yard touchdown to McArthur that made it 13-10 with 1:37 left in the second quarter.
Rodgers was 14-for-14 in the first half for 133 yards.