From the moment the postgame confetti fell on Texas’ triumphant Vince Young after the 2006 Rose Bowl Game, commentators nationwide proclaimed the Texas-USC matchup as the greatest game of all time. Without a doubt, the 2006 Rose Bowl had enormous weight riding on its outcome. The Trojans entered the game as two-time defending national champions with a 34-game winning streak. Texas was also undefeated, attempting to win their first national championship since the early 1970s. The game itself was competitive and entertaining. Six lead changes, electrifying offensive plays, and an abundance of star power on both sidelines made for a game that was nothing if not unforgettable. Vince Young, Reggie Bush, and Matt Leinart are a few of the greatest college players of all-time, and all shared the same field that night.
Even so, retrospective analysis of the game suggests that the significance of the 2006 Rose Bowl may not be exactly what we thought at the time. The notion of an all-time great game requires more than just flash and star power, which is primarily what talking heads base their knee-jerk claims on. You also need defense and discipline. Games with a million yards of offense and plenty of turnovers are usually just the result of anemic defenses and sloppy play. As we saw in the USC-Texas game, offense was clearly the dominant side for both teams. In an era before the weekly 200-yard rushing games of today, the fact that both teams managed over 550 yards of offense was an affront to what football is all about. Great football requires give and take from both sides of the ball. Defenses need to be able to impose their will just as often as offenses, producing balanced matchups at more points on the field.
What was doubly unfortunate was that such a defenseless game was played with outstanding defensive players on both sides. USC’s Frostee Rucker and Keith Rivers spent most of the night falling over themselves chasing Young, while Texas’ All-Conference defensive lineman Brian Robison ended the night with one tackle and a whimper. These players were forces to be reckoned with for most of the 2005 season, but disappeared for long stretches of that Rose Bowl, the biggest game of their college careers.
That said, the issue of identifying the greatest game of all time may be more dependent on one’s personal definition of what “great” football is. As you can guess, I am not a fan of high scoring, offensive football. It is quite possible that the Rose Bowl Game is still the greatest game of all time to the same people who stand in awe of the TCUs of today, teams that put up tons of points, but have weak defenses.
My counter-example of an all-time great game is the 2002 Ohio State - Michigan game, won by the Buckeyes 14-9. This game’s greatness lay in the ability of both teams’ game plans to be successfully executed simultaneously, with balanced offensive and defensive advantage. Lloyd Carr’s ball control strategy and Jim Tressel’s aim to win the field position battle were goals both squads were able to achieve, without either throwing out their plans at any point. Both rosters possessed NFL talent at a number of positions, with once-in-a-lifetime athletes like Maurice Clarrett at skill spots. Additionally, there were no turnovers until the final two minutes of the game, and almost no penalty yardage until Michigan’s final two drives. Significance? The winners went on to beat another media appointed “greatest of all time”: the Ken Dorsey-led Miami Hurricanes for the national title.
A Different Take
The 2006 Rose Bowl Game is historically significant in one overlooked way. With over two minutes left in the game, USC coach Pete Carroll faced a fourth and two on the Texas 45. His bigger halfback, LenDale White, had carried much of the load for the Trojans during the game, and accumulated well over 100 yards on the ground by the fourth quarter. With the chance to run out the clock, Carroll gambled and tried to convert on fourth by running White between the tackles. The result was pivotal; the Longhorns defensive line had great penetration, and stuffed White just before the first down marker. The Texas defensive line had its first significant victory! After the turnover on downs gave the Longhorns the ball with two minutes to play, Vince Young led the winning drive, ultimately delivering the national championship to Austin.
Fast-forward to February 2015 in the University of Phoenix Stadium. Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks were on the doorstep of their second straight Super Bowl victory. With the ball on the New England one-yard line, Carroll called a quick slant pass play to receiver Ricardo Lockette. The pass was intercepted at the goal line by New England’s Malcolm Butler, sealing the win for the Patriots 28-24, and igniting a furious debate about the wisdom of Carroll’s call. Why didn’t Carroll call Marshawn Lynch’s number, the halfback who had essentially carried the load most of the game? His dependability and toughness all season long seemed to back a notion that a draw play at the goal line was the proper course.
The answer to that question may lie in the memory of the 2006 Rose Bowl. In a similar situation, Carroll put his faith in LenDale White. The down and distance was a perceived gimme for a back like White. And yet, choosing to not utilize one of his enormously talented receivers to secure the first down ended up costing the Trojans against a Texas defensive unit that knew their season was on the line. In 2015, Carroll also had a bruising tailback that would have, on paper, assuredly reached the end zone given the chance. Knowing the long-run cost of making the wrong choice twice, Carroll decided to go to the air, with a similarly devastating result.
My argument is that Pete Carroll learned from history. His choice to run White in 2006 stuck with him, influencing his choices in the Super Bowl. Knowing he faced an eerily similar situation in the Super Bowl, choosing to NOT ride a tailback for the win was the only logical move from Carroll’s perspective. It would be bad to lose by throwing an interception or incompletion. What would be worse would be losing two championship games by making the same choice in both cases.
Of course, there were differences in the two games. Seattle did not face fourth down, as it was only second down when Russell made his ill-fated pass. Also, the Seahawks had a timeout to burn if their first play did not stop the clock. Still, all the chips were on the proverbial table, and Carroll’s choices in each situation could have secured championships for his teams. The big takeaway here is that Carroll’s experiences in 2006 influenced the choices made in 2015. Coaches like Carroll can learn from the memory of the past the same way. In the end, it may not have been the greatest game ever, but few games can help explain later important events like the 2006 Rose Bowl.
 This wasn’t just a development in the moment. Present-day media outlets like Bleacher Report have also used the 2006 Rose Bowl as their “greatest games of all time” chart topper: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2470644-25-greatest-games-in-history-of-college-football/page/26
 Michigan held the ball for almost ten minutes longer than OSU, while OSU was held no qualms about punting six times to flip the field.