BOWL OF THORNSNAVARRE HOUNDED, MICHIGAN POUNDED

PASADENA, Calif. — Well, it sure was nice of USC to invite Michigan out for a game of pitch and catch. But when the California kids start throwing to their own quarterback, it’s time for Midwesterners to go home.

There goes your No. 1 team, folks, the high-flying Trojans, and you should get no argument from the defeated Wolverines. Pete Carroll’s maroon and gold may not get to hoist a BCS national championship trophy, but its hands should be all over it — the way they were all over Michigan on New Year’s Day.

There were the hands of senior receiver Keary Colbert — the less famous of the Southern Cal pass catchers — who snared two touchdowns with Wolverines draped on his ankles.

There were the hands of the USC defender who blocked a Michigan field-goal attempt, and the USC defender who knocked a fourth-down pass out of the air — one that seemed certain to be a Michigan touchdown.

There were the hands of MVP quarterback Matt Leinart, the USC sophomore who not only threw his way, all day, through the Michigan defense, with the timing of a pro and the poise of a guy 10 years older, but who also caught — that’s right, caught — a touchdown pass from his wide receiver to make it 28-7.

The quarterback caught a touchdown pass?

But mostly there were the hands of the USC defense, whose line calls itself
“Wild Bunch II” after an earlier Trojans team (only in California do you have sequels in football). But the Wild Bunch’s and their teammates’ hands were all over Michigan quarterback John Navarre, from start to finish. The senior, playing his last game for the maize and blue, saw more green turf than he had in any other game all year. Nine sacks.

Nine sacks? Wasn’t this the great offensive line that Michigan is so proud of? Nine sacks? More than half the total it had allowed all season? Nine sacks?

“Our inability to protect the quarterback,” said U-M coach Lloyd Carr, “was the biggest thing.”

You can’t score when you’re on the ground.

The home-state advantage

And you can’t spot a team like USC any points it didn’t earn. Remember, this is a Trojans team that scored at least 40 points in its last seven games. There are college basketball teams that don’t score much more than that.

To top it off, the Trojans were playing a cab ride from their home turf. No planes. No road trips. No time zone adjustments. No missing home. If we’ve learned anything from games against these “home team” types in the Rose Bowl, it’s that Michigan needs to play 150 percent to get a 100 percent result. You can’t miss your big chances.

And you can’t give away points.

But from the beginning Thursday, what USC wouldn’t take away from U-M, the Wolverines took from themselves. Their opening drive featured a dropped bomb by Braylon Edwards, a blindside sack of Navarre on which he fumbled, and a blocked field-goal attempt (after all, this is Michigan).

That was just the first drive! After USC scored in its first 37 seconds of offense — “thanks for the short field, Wolverines” — Michigan went back to its plodding business. Navarre was sacked to end one drive, threw incomplete to end another, and, in a move that couldn’t be repeated if they tried, threw a low third-down pass to Edwards, who kicked it off his heel and up into the air.

Honestly, this was a thing of beauty. How can a quarterback hit a guy’s shoe from that far away?

Of course, it would have been better if USC’s Lofa Tatupu weren’t waiting there to intercept the ball, and take it down to the Michigan 3.

A few plays later, a missed tackle by U-M’s Jeremy LeSueur turned a third-down stop into a USC touchdown.

And it was 14-0.

Truth is, it was catch-up mode the rest of the game. And every good thing the Wolverines did was countered by excellence from USC. The Trojans’ passing attack was silly good. And their pressure on Navarre was as smothering as it was surprising. Remember, this was a Trojans team that was supposed to specialize in stopping the run, not the pass.

Nine sacks?

By the way, speaking of passing games, a word here about Leinart, the USC quarterback and the Rose Bowl MVP, who got none of the attention of an Eli Manning or a Jason White this season, but looked every bit their equal in this game. This kid was scary accurate, scary poised, and he’s not bad at receiving, either. To see what a sophomore can do in a game this big is impressive enough. The fact that he was sitting behind Carson Palmer last year is enough to make you maroon-envy crazy.

Who’s sitting behind Leinart? Brett Favre’s kid brother?

The mythical champion

So now the real fight begins. USC, 12-1 and ranked No. 1 in both polls, did what was it supposed to do, beat the No. 4 team it was handed as an opponent. Yet Sunday night, in the Sugar Bowl, if No. 3 Oklahoma beats No. 2 LSU — or the other way around — the winner will vault over USC and be given the BCS national championship — or a share of the “actual” national championship — whatever that is.

And what exactly is it? If it can’t be proven on the field, it’s mythical at best, statistical at worst, and empty as a pocket in either case. This was the year for acid rain on the Bowl Championship Series parade, and if there is any justice in this silly charade, by this time next year we will have a single-game playoff between the winners of 1-2-3-4.

“Pete (Carroll) won a national championship tonight,” Carr said on the field after the 28-14 finish. “Years from now, nobody will remember whether it was shared.”

And what will we remember from this Wolverines squad? Well, the Wolverines had their thrilling moments — none finer than the domination of arch-rival Ohio State, none more exciting than the insane comeback against Minnesota — and they also had their throat stickers, the special-teams collapses in the losses to Oregon and Iowa, and this New Year’s Day, where the defense couldn’t close down USC’s passing machine, and the offensive line could not protect its most valuable asset, its quarterback.

A nod to the good, then, and an urge to improve the bad (please, get a kicking game!). And finally, a farewell to the seniors, especially stars Chris Perry, who put the traditional sizzle in the Michigan running back slot, and to Navarre. He had a great season to top a great career. But his last play Thursday left him lying at the bottom of a pile, wondering if anyone got the number of that maroon truck.

Yeah. It’s No. 1.

Ask any of the 94,000 witnesses.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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